ROME (AP) — An earthquake triggered by Mount Etna's eruption jolted eastern Sicily before dawn Wednesday, injuring at least 10 people, damaging churches and houses on the volcano's slopes and prompting panicked villagers to flee their homes.
Italy's Civil Protection officials said the quake, which struck at 3:19 a.m., was part of a swarm of some 1,000 tremors, most of them barely perceptible, linked to Etna's volcanic eruption this week.
Italy's national seismology institute said the quake had a magnitude of 4.8 on the open-ended Richter scale and 4.9 on the moment magnitude scale, which relates to the amount the ground slips. It struck north of Catania, the largest city in the eastern part of the Mediterranean island, but no damage or injuries were reported there.
The quake opened up cracks in homes in several towns, sending chunks of concrete debris tumbling to the ground. It toppled a Madonna statue in a church in Santa Venerina and broke up sidewalks and a stretch of highway, forcing it to close. Many people spent the hours after the quake sleeping in their cars.
In the town of Piano d'Api, firefighters removed cracked stucco from the bell tower of the damaged Santa Maria della Misericordia church. Italy's culture ministry said the quake damage to churches was being tallied by experts.
"Etna remains a dangerous volcano, and this country of ours is unfortunately fragile," government undersecretary Vito Crimi said as he reported 10 people injured.
The most seriously injured was a 70-year-old man who fractured ribs and was undergoing surgery for chest injuries. A 71-year-old patient was being kept in hospital for observation, while others were treated and released, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. Additionally, 18 other people went to local hospitals suffering from panic attacks or shock, news reports said.
One 80-year-old man was safely extracted from the rubble of his home, ANSA said, while a woman told state radio that her sister was pulled out from under a heavy armoire that had toppled. A ceiling collapsed in another house, and in other homes parts of exterior walls crumbled. Some stone walls along fields and local roads crumbled.
Etna, the largest of Italy's three active volcanoes, has been particularly active since July. In recent days, Etna's latest eruption has been shooting volcanic ash, heavy smoke and lava stones into the air, coating roads and homes nearby with ash. A new fracture has opened near Etna's southeast crater and lava has been flowing down an uninhabited slope.
The quake was also felt in the upscale Sicilian resort town of Taormina and in other towns in eastern Sicily.
The Civil Protection agency said temporary shelters were being set up in gyms or municipal buildings for people whose houses were damaged or who were too frightened to return to their homes.
Similar volcanic activity on Etna has been observed many times in past decades, Andrea Billi, a geologist with the state National Council of Research, told RaiNews24.
This kind of activity "can last days or weeks," he said, "but it's unpredictable."
Italy's Civil Protection chief said it appeared the activity at Etna was calming down.
"From a scientific point of view, we're dealing with an isolated event," Angelo Borrelli told Sky TG24 TV. "The technical experts tell us we're heading toward a cooling of the lava, and we ought to expect a quiescence of the phenomenon (of earthquakes)."
Some residents told reporters that after a similar quake in 1984 which killed a person, many on Mount Etna retrofitted their houses to enable them to withstand more powerful temblors.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at a href='http://www.twitter.com/fdemilio%3c'www.twitter.com/fdemilio/a