NAPLES, Italy -- The strongest earthquake in 70 years struck southern Italy at dinner time Sunday, shaking an area from Sicily to Venice, devastating villages and triggering prison riots in Naples. Officials feared the death toll could climb over 200.
Hundreds of others were injured, officials said. Rescue workers were hampered by dense fog as they picked through the rubble of collapsed buildings in Naples and other towns and villages stretching to the southern end of the Amalfi Coast resort area. Officials confirmed more than 100 dead in the area seven hours after the quake struck.
The quake, which measured between 6.5 and 6.8 on the Richter scale, hit hardest in Potenza, 86 miles east-southeast of Naples, where officials estimated up to 200 people may be dead, including 100 trapped in a village church.
Half of Potenza was severely damaged and much of the nearby village of Balvano was devastated, officials said.
'The center of the town is no longer recognizable,' said Don Salvatore Pagluca, parish priest in Balvano.
'It was terrible,' the priest said in a telephone interview, his voice breaking into sobs. 'Half my church collapsed and there are still people in there.'
Police said they feared as many as 100 people may have been in the Balvano church at the time and that most may have been killed.
Scores of dead and injured were reported in the towns and villages that line the coast of the Bay of Naples and in the inland mountain towns.
Officials reported hundreds of injured crowding hospitals in the region and urgent calls were broadcast for more physicians and drugs supplies.
Dozens of buildings collapsed into piles of rubble in Naples, including a nine-story apartment building and a five-story building in nearby Castellemmare di Stabia.
Fires were reported throughout the city and Potenza, Avellino and Salerno because of broken gas mains.
Naples police said the 2,000 inmates of the city's Poggiareale prison and those in a women's detention center at nearby Pozzuoli rioted when the quake struck and took several guards hostage. They said police reinforcements surrounded both facilities and had to use tear gas to restore order.
Scientists said the quake was centered in the rugged mountains about 50 miles east of Naples, though it was clearly felt as far south as Sicily and as far north as Venice and Trieste near the Yugoslav frontier.
Scientists recorded at least seven aftershock tremors.
It was the strongest quake measured in southern Italy since a major earthquake killed about 75,000 people at Messina, Sicily in 1908.
Officials at the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., said the quake was the strongest for that part of Italy since records began to be compiled in 1910.
Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo and other officials meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Rome cut the talks short so they could rush south to survey the disaster area.
Pope John Paul II, who was to meet Mrs. Thatcher late Monday morning, was in his private apartments in the Vatican Palace at the time of the quake.
Physicians in the quake region canceled a planned 24-hour strike that was to begin Monday to press for better working conditions.
Rome's Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport was closed to traffic for 40 minutes when its air control personnel abandoned their control tower as the swaying started, officials said.
Within hours of the quake, rescue workers searching through the debris began finding additional victims.
At least eight people were killed in collapsing buildings in Naples, another three in the town of Castellammare de Stabia 15 miles to the south and another dozen in the nearby village of Casola.
Officials reported hundreds of injured crowding hospitals throughout the region and urgent calls were broadcast for all physicians and nurses to report to work immediately.
Scientists said the epicenter of the quake was in the rugged mountains about 50 miles east of Naples. They said at least six sharp aftershocks were reported in the first two hours after the main quake and predicted more would follow through the night.
It was the strongest earthquake to hit Italy since May 6, 1976 when a major quake struck the Friuli region north of Venice measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, killing 1,000 people and leaving another 3,000 homeless.
Scientists said the quake could be the most serious to hit southern Italy since the 1908 earthquake that leveled the Sicilian town of Messina and killed 75,000.
'It was very strong, very strong,' said Padre Bravieri, chief of the Roman Catholic Church-run Ximeniano geophysical observatory near Florence. 'It knocked most of our instruments out of commission.'
Hundreds of thousands of residents in cities and towns throughout southern Italy fled into the streets when the quake hit to avoid falling walls and plaster.
Naples police said the panic was heightened by hundreds of automobile burglar alarms that were set off by the shaking ground and minor fires set off by broken gas lines.
Electricity and telephone service was cut off for most of the region and authorities said emergency rescue squads were rushing to the area from throughout Italy.