ROME (RNS) Faith-based volunteers are joining civil protection teams sifting through the collapsed buildings and debris of a 6.2-magnitude earthquake that hit central Italy this week as the search for survivors continues.
The death toll rose above 240 Thursday (Aug. 25) in the devastated mountain towns of this heavily Catholic nation.
And the number of dead and missing is still unclear, with dozens believed to be still trapped under the rubble in the hardest-hit towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto.
A local bishop, Giovanni D’Ercole from Ascoli Piceno, one of the worst-hit areas, described the situation as a “nightmare.”
“When dawn arrived we saw total destruction,” he told Italian TV. "So many people were screaming out from the buildings, ‘Help us, help us.’ It will be very difficult to get this town going again. Everything is destroyed.”
Many of the quake's victims are children, and there are fears the toll will rise higher than the L’Aquila quake, which killed 308 in 2009.
“I am afraid that the number of victims will rise also today and not by a few,” said Nicola Zingaretti, president of the Lazio region, where the latest quake occurred.
Volunteers, including a doctor and nurse, from the Italian Relief Corps of the Sovereign Order of Malta joined rescue efforts in Amatrice, around 90 miles northeast of Rome.
“Now we have 64 volunteers managing the local sports hall, where we hosted 230 during the night,” Catholic volunteer Giorgio Minguzzi told Vatican Radio.
“In the sports hall we are also managing all the spontaneous donations, foodstuffs and basic necessities. On the rescue side we have several search and rescue dogs in action right now.”
Minguzzi said the aftershocks are still very dangerous and many people are coming to assist in the quake zone but without proper training or equipment.
“In this scenario, helping is a very tricky task. Goodwill is absolutely not enough,” Minguzzi said. “Every shock can generate a new collapse also over the volunteers so it is very dangerous.”
Amatrice normally has a population of around 2,500, but the historic town was packed with vacationers for its annual Amatriciana spaghetti festival when the quake struck as people slept in the early hours of Wednesday.
The town, known across Italy and beyond for its local pasta Amatriciana dish, had been filling up for the 50th edition of the popular food festival.
The mayor said the bodies of up to 20 tourists were believed to be under the rubble of the town's Hotel Roma, which collapsed Wednesday morning.
Around 270 people injured in the quake have been hospitalized and hundreds of others have been left homeless, the civil protection department said.
Italy’s Catholic bishops have donated 1 million euros to victims and called for a national collection to be taken up at church services across Italy on Sept. 18.
“The church in Italy gathers together in prayer for all the victims and expresses brotherly closeness to the people involved in this dramatic event,” the bishops said in a statement. The Catholic charity Caritas International has also pledged a donation of 100,000 euros.
There were cheers and applause late Wednesday when rescuers saved a 10-year-old girl from the rubble where she had lain for about 15 hours.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Cabinet met Thursday and released the first round of 50 million euros in emergency aid and approved measures to help the affected communities.