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Thousands scour central Italy for survivors of deadly earthquake

Rescue crews labored through the night to find the unknowable number of people still buried under the rubble of Wednesday's 6.2-magnitude earthquake in central Italy, which has already been blamed for killing at least 247 people and injuring hundreds upon hundreds of others.

Fellow rescuers and onlookers clapped and cheered as a crew pulled a young child from the rubble alive in Amatrice, one of the worst-hit communities, the newspaper La Repubblica reported.

"Piano, piano, piano, piano," a woman could be heard ordering — "gently, gently, gently, gently" — as the child, whose face was obscured to protect his or her privacy, was hurried away on a stretcher in video of the rescue posted by the newspaper.

In the damaged town of Pescara del Tronto, a 10-year-old girl was also pulled alive from the rubble.

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The center of Amatrice was devastated, with entire palazzi and other large municipal structures razed to the ground. Aerial images from the fire department showed whole streets flattened. About 50 of the dead were in Amatrice alone, a police officer told NBC News.

"There are people under the rubble," Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told RAI, the state-run broadcaster. "The town isn't here anymore."

Fabrizio Curcio, director of Italy's Civil Protection Department, said Wednesday night that about 30 people were believed to have been buried in the rubble of the collapsed Hotel Roma in Amatrice, the Rome newspaper Il Messaggerro reported.

So far, two had been rescued alive and the bodies of two others had been recovered, said Curcio, who made his remarks in a live interview on the RAI1 news program Porta a Porta, the newspaper said.

The hard-hit hilltop city was set to host a food festival later this week, and it was already anticipating tourists flooding into the area.

Pirozzi earlier had said as many as 70 people might have been in the hotel, but Curcio said late Wednesday that many revelers hadn't yet arrived in the area before the earthquake hit. Others, he said, likely managed to escape to safety on their own.

An army was mobilized to search for survivors, using their bare hands, heavy equipment and sniffer dogs to sift through the waste and wriggle people free.

The Defense Ministry dispatched a regiment of soldiers to the devastated area to join an overall force that was approaching 4,400 rescue workers across the region, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said in a statement. Also involved were nine helicopters, 200 emergency vehicles and 50 canine rescue squads.

The earthquake hit at 3:36 a.m. local time (9:36 p.m. ET Tuesday) near Norcia, 50 miles southeast of Perugia — just 25 miles from the epicenter of a temblor that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

It was felt more than 100 miles away in Rome, and it was followed by several large aftershocks amid dramatic scenes of rescue and cries for help.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Italians "show their best side in difficult moments," telling reporters: "We must continue to work and to dig through the debris in order to save human lives and give hope to all those involved in the area."

President Sergio Mattarella described the tragedy as a "moment of pain" for the country, while Pope Francis led pilgrims in prayer. The Vatican sent a six-man team from its fire squad to assist in the rescue operations.

"Hearing the mayor of Amatrice say that the town no longer exists, and learning that there are children among the dead, I am deeply saddened," the pope said in remarks at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.

Francesca Maffini, a spokeswoman for Italy's civil protection agency, said that residents in Amatrice were "distraught" and that schools were being used as makeshift shelters for the many who were displaced.

"We flew to Amatrice from Rome in a helicopter, so I saw it from the air," she told NBC News. "There are a lot of historical buildings that are destroyed. It's really bad."

People stand next collapsed buildings following an earthquake in Amatrice, Italy, August 24, 2016.
Stefano Rellandini | Reuters
People stand next collapsed buildings following an earthquake in Amatrice, Italy, August 24, 2016.

Italy sits at the intersection of two major continental plates, making it one of the most seismically active countries in Europe.

Wednesday's quake occurred along a fault in the central Apennine Mountains, which span Italy from the Gulf of Taranto in the south to the southern edge of the Po River basin in the north, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.