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Death Toll Rises, Sites Lost in Italy Quake

The devastating toll of Wednesday's earthquake continues to rise.

<p> Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale<span></span></p>

The numbers are terrible: 267 dead -- and counting -- about 400 people hospitalized with injuries, and 293 cultural heritage sites heavily damaged or totally destroyed.

Sadly, the devastating toll of the 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck central Italy in the early hours of Wednesday leveling the towns of Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata and Pescara del Tronto is not final.

Authorities said it is likely it will surpass that from the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake, which killed 309 people.

As violent aftershocks continue to shake central Italy, the number of severely damaged artworks and historic buildings is also growing, Italy's minister of cultural heritage and activities and tourism Dario Franceschini said.

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"In such tragedies the top priority is to save lives and give affected communities a way to continue their lives," Franceschini said at a press conference Thursday.

"But we also need to activate ourselves at this stage of rubble removal. In order to restore the historical buildings, it is necessary to save as much of their ruins," he added.

Most of the picturesque Medieval town of Amatrice is now flattened. Voted as one of Italy's most beautiful historic towns last year, the birthplace of the famous amatriciana pasta sauce has suffered such a level of damage that it will have to be razed to the ground, mayor Sergio Pirozzi said.

"It must be rebuilt keeping its original historic look," he added.

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The ministry of culture asked art experts from the military police to survey the damage to establish a preservation strategy. The crumbling cultural properties span several regions, including Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Abruzzo.

While small structural cracks have been recorded in the ancient Roman Catholic cathedral in the city of Urbino, in the Marche region, destruction is everywhere in Amatrice. The bell tower, the tallest structure in town, is one of the few buildings that remain standing.

The town was famous for its numerous churches filled with frescoes and sculptures, but most of them have collapsed or are severely damaged.

One of Amatrice's most famous buildings, the 15th-century Sant'Agostino church, which boasted a Gothic portal and frescoes including "Madonna Enthroned with Child" dated to 1492, is now partly collapsed and missing half of its beautiful rose-windowed façade.

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Little is known about the fate of nearly 3,000 artworks housed in the town.

In the Umbrian town of Norcia, the quake caused serious structural harm to the city's historic Medieval walls and to the 12th-century monastery and Basilica of St. Benedict.

"The number of damaged historic buildings is expected to rise because the earthquake activity reached along the slopes and not in a geometric circle around the epicenter," Antonia Pasqua Recchia, Secretary General of the Italian Ministry for Heritage and Cultural Activities, warned.

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Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared a state of emergency and allocated ‚ā¨50 million ($50.5 million) in emergency funds for the affected areas.

"But that is not enough and we must think beyond the state of emergency, that there is a need for a bigger plan," Renzi said.

He promised to rebuild the Medieval villages and said he would renew efforts to reinforce the country's weak defenses against earthquakes.

Italy sits on two fault lines, making it one of the most seismically active countries in Europe.

This Sunday state museums and archaeological sites across Italy will donate ticket sales to rescue efforts.

Franceschini urged Italians to go to museums on Sunday "in a sign of solidarity with the populations involved in the earthquake."

SEE PHOTOS OF DAMAGED SITES:

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The clock on the 13-century bell tower in Amatrice has become one of the most poignant sights of the disaster that hit the town. Indeed, it stopped just after Wednesday's earthquake struck at 3:36 a.m., changing the fate of the town forever.

Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

The bell tower, the tallest structure in Amatrice, is one of the few buildings that remain standing.

Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

Amatrice has suffered such a level of damage that it will have to be razed to the ground and then rebuilt maintaining its historic look, mayor Sergio Pirozzi said.

Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

One of Amatrice's most famous buildings, the 15th-century Sant'Agostino church, which boasted a Gothic portal and frescoes including "Madonna Enthroned with Child" dated to 1492, is now partly collapsed and missing half of its beautiful rose-windowed façade.

Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

The 14th-century San Francesco Church in Amatrice is also crumbling.

Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

The frescoes inside the Sant'Agostino church are severely damaged; little is known about the fate of the nearly 3,000 artworks housed in Amatrice.

Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale