(NORCIA, Italy) —Central Italy was hit by another powerful earthquake Sunday, toppling buildings that had recently withstood other major quakes and sending panicked residents back into the streets, but causing no immediate loss of life. The quake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.6 was the strongest to strike the country in nearly 36 years. That there were no reports of deaths was largely due to the fact that thousands of residents left their homes after two strong jolts last week shook the same mountainous area.
Some 20 people were injured, many lightly, authorities said.
The Apennine Mountain region of central Italy, located along a major fault line, has been the site of dozens of significant earthquakes, including an Aug. 24 quake with a 6.1 magnitude that killed nearly 300 people.
Back-to-back jolts on Wednesday left thousands more people homeless, but the only death reported resulted from a heart attack.
“It is since 1980 that we have had to deal with an earthquake of this magnitude,” Fabrizio Curcio, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection agency, said.
Curcio was referring to a 6.9 magnitude quake in a different region that includes Naples that killed some 3,000 people and caused extensive damage in November 1980.
Residents already rattled by a constant trembling of the earth rushed into piazzas and streets after being roused from bed by Sunday’s 7:40 a.m. quake. It was felt as far north as Salzburg, Austria and all the way down the Italian peninsula to the Puglia region, the heel of the boot.
Curcio said authorities were responding with helicopters to help the injured and monitor collapses, as many roads were blocked by landslides. Some 3,600 people had already been relocated, many to the coast, following last week’s quake, and Curcio said more would follow.
Closest to the epicenter was the ancient city of Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, the father of monasticism and famed for its Benedictine monastery. Witnesses said the 14th Century St. Benedict cathedral collapsed in the quake, with only the facade still standing.
“It’s as if the whole city fell down,” Norcia city assessor Giuseppina Perla told the ANSA news agency. The city’s ancient walls suffered damage, as did another famous Norcia church, St. Mary Argentea, known for its 15th century frescoes.