By FRANCES D'EMILIO, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — A quake 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.
The quake struck north of Catania, the largest city in the eastern part of the Mediterranean island, but no damage or injuries were reported there. 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 is related to the amount the ground slips.
The temblor occurred at a relatively shallow depth, 0.6 mile under the mountain's surface.
The most seriously injured by the quake 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, some 18 other people went to local hospitals suffering from panic attacks or shock, news reports said.
Heavily monitored by geologists, 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 Wednesday opened up cracks in homes in several towns, including some abandoned structures, toppled a Madonna statue in a church in the town of Santa Venerina and broke up a stretch of highway, forcing it to close for inspection, Rai state radio said.
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.
Some stone walls along farm fields and local roads crumbled.
One 80-year-old man was safely extracted from the rubble of his home, the Italian news agency ANSA said.
A woman told state radio that a heavy armoire in her home had toppled over, trapping her sister, who was then safely pulled out by her father. The ceiling collapsed in another house, and in other homes parts of exterior walls crumbled.
"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 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.