NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.
Updated 11:17 a.m. ET: A strong earthquake rocked a large swathe of northern Italy early on Sunday, killing at least five people, injuring dozens and seriously damaging historic churches, bell towers and a medieval castle.
The 6.0-magnitude quake was centered 22 miles north-northwest of Bologna in northern Italy at a relatively shallow depth of 6.3 miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It struck at about 4 a.m. local time and was followed by a series of jolting aftershocks.
At least two aftersocks reached magnitude 5.1, sowing fresh panic, further damaging already weakened buildings and causing more structures to collapse.
"I am 83 and I have never felt anything like this,'' said Lina Gardenghi in the town of Bondeno, near Ferrara, Reuters reported.
"I ran out in my underwear," one man told Italian television.
The epicenter of the quake, the strongest to hit Italy in three years, was in the plains near Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region of the Po river valley, and the tremor was felt as far west as Liguria, bordering France, and the Friuli region bordering Slovenia.
The roof of the cathedral in Mirandola collapsed. "Our school children were to receive their first communion here this morning. If it had happened then it would have been a disaster," the local priest said.
Also badly damaged was the 14th century Estense Castle in the town of San Felice Sul Panaro.
Stringer / Italy / Reuters
A woman carries her belongings in Finale Emilia on Sunday after a strong earthquake rocked a large swathe of northern Italy.
The tops of several of the smaller towers of the famous medieval castle, the town's biggest attraction, collapsed and there were fears that the main tower could crumble. Three of the town's churches were severely damaged.
Among the dead was a woman of 106, killed in her bed by a falling roofbeam at her house in the countryside.
One person, believed to be a Moroccan man working a night shift in a polyester factory, died when he was hit by falling debris, and two men, also on the night shift, were killed when part of a modern ceramics factory made of steel collapsed in the town of Sant' Agostino.
"He wasn't supposed to be there. He changed shifts with a friend who wanted to go to the beach," the mother of one of the victims told state television.
The lbody of another victim was spotted under rubble in another factory.
Gashes, cracks, gas leaks
The quake left a large hole and gashes in the side of the Sant' Agostino town hall, which officials said was in danger of total collapse. Gas was also leaking in the town.
Rescue workers were checking reports that other people were buried under rubble and were preparing to house those whose homes had been damaged or destroyed.
There was serious damage to historic buildings and churches in the provinces of Modena and Ferrara, and the quake also shook major towns such as Bologna, Rovigo, Verona and Mantua.
A series of strong aftershocks hit the area, the strongest measuring 5.1, and local mayors ordered residents to stay in the open.
The last major quake to hit Italy was a 6.3 magnitude quake in the central city of L'Aquila in 2009, which killed nearly 300 people.
After that quake, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved a G8 meeting that was to have been held in Sardinia to near L'Aquila in a show of solidarity with the victims.
In Rome, Pope Benedict prayed for the victims in his Sunday address at the Vatican and the Italian government said it would declare a state of emergency, freeing up funds for reconstruction.
This article includes reporting by NBC News, msbnc.com staff and Reuters.
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