The red brick Amatrice city hall resisted the devastating Aug. 24 quake that collapsed buildings all around it, only to crumble under the one-two punch of lesser jolts Wednesday night. They also brought down a centuries-old church tower in Camerino that had withstood both a quake in 1997 and the one in August.
The twin aftershocks Wednesday may have exacted a lesser human toll than the August quake that preceded them, with no one killed under rubble and no reports of serious injuries. But they revealed structural weakness in the mountainous quake-prone zone straddling the Marche and Umbria regions, and added more psychological stress to already traumatized inhabitants.
Premier Matteo Renzi visited the picturesque hill-top university town of Camerino on Thursday, which is pledging to rebuild under the slogan: "The future doesn't collapse." His government has earmarked 40 million euros ($43.6 million) to help house those displaced by the most recent quakes, and he promised to get to work on reconstruction "soon and in a serious way."
"The earthquake is putting us to the test, but Italy is here and we will not leave citizens alone. We are stronger and we will make it," Renzi said.
The first quake at 7:10 p.m., with a magnitude of 5.4, sent residents into the streets under heavy rain — which authorities said likely saved lives by getting people outside ahead of the second, much more powerful quake.
That jolt, two hours later and eight times stronger, brought down weakened buildings, like the bell tower in Camerino, and rendered unsafe countless homes, on top of those damaged in August. With no time to come up with adequate emergency shelter, thousands slept in their cars.
Authorities on Thursday were scrambling to find housing so that no one would have to spend a second night in their vehicles.
In the town of Ussita, Mayor Marco Rinaldi said his town had been "devastated," with up to 80 percent of the houses no longer inhabitable.
In Visso, the mayor estimated that two-thirds of the town's 1,500 houses had sustained some damage while the remaining residents preferred not to return home until checks were made to ensure safety. "Tonight, we are not leaving anyone in the streets," Mayor Giuliano Passaglini told residents, laying out options for accommodations.
Camerino Mayor Gianluca Pasqui said the town's historic bell tower of the Santa Maria in Via church, dating from the Crusades, had collapsed, but emphasized that reconstruction work after a 6.1 -magnitude quake in 1997, including on the church and tower, appeared to have contributed to the absence of serious injury.
"I can say that the city didn't have victims. That means that even if there is a lot of damage probably the reconstruction in the historic center was done in a correct and adequate manner. Because otherwise, we would be speaking of something else," Pasqui told Sky TG24.
The town is home to 7,500 residents and 10,000 students at the Camerino University, one of Italy's oldest founded in 1336.
The president of Umbria region, Catiuscia Marini, told RAI state television that officials were mindful that with winter approaching and temperatures dropping, tents couldn't be deployed as they were after the August quake. The concern for the predominantly elderly population of the remote mountain region was repeated by other officials.
Marini said that after the quakes many people will be fearful of staying even in hotels deemed safe, and that solutions like campers were being considered.
"We don't have injured, we have people who are very afraid, who have anxiety, especially the elderly," she said.