The devastating earthquake that struck central Italy may claim more victims than the 2009 temblor that struck the central city of L’Aquila, killing 308 people, an official said on Thursday.
The L’Aquila quake had a magnitude of 5.8.
“We won’t be surprised if this happens, but we hope it won’t,” the head of Italy’s civil protection department, Fabrizio Curcio, told SkyNews24.
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“We are close to the number of victims of the L’Aquila earthquake,” he added. “We need to be prepared for this.”
Curcio was speaking as the civil protection department confirmed that 241 people were killed in Wednesday’s magnitude 6.2 earthquake in the border area between the Lazio, Umbria and Marche regions in the central Apennines.
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Most of the victims were in Lazio’s northern province of Rieti.
Officials said they expected to confirm more deaths as rescuers continued to locate victims beneath the rubble of flattened mountainside towns.
Many of those killed or injured were holidaymakers in the four worst-hit towns of Amatrice, Pescara del Tronto, Arquata del Tronto and Accumoli.
Populations increase in the area by up to tenfold in the summer, making it hard to know the precise numbers of victims.
Rescue operations were continuing at a hotel in Amatrice where the town’s mayor said on Wednesday that up to 70 guests were trapped beneath rubble.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in the city of Rieti opened an investigation into whether the devastation from the earthquake could have been averted.
“It was necessary to do this to be able to identify the bodies and to get a green light to bury them,” Chief Prosecutor Giuseppe Saieva told Adnkronos.
Investigators were not currently being given access to the quake sites where rescue operations are still taking place, he said.
“Clearly it isn’t possible to visit yet because the rescue teams are at work,” Saievea stated.
Rescuers were on Thursday still trying to reach victims under the rubble of collapsed buildings as hopes of pulling out more survivors dwindled.
Questions are already being asked among the wider Italian public about whether more could have been done to avert the worst impacts of Wednesday’s quake, which has left hundreds injured and thousands homeless.
The Apennine mountains in central Italy have the highest seismic hazard in Western Europe and strong earthquakes are common.
Modern buildings in the region are required by law to be built to high anti-seismic standards, given the number of earthquakes the area suffers.
Yet in Amatrice, one of the worst hit towns, the local hospital was rendered “unusable” by the quake, while its historic 16th-century clock tower was one of the few structures left standing.