Still wearing her slippers and a night gown, a dazed woman emerged from the rubble and dust.
"My God, it looks like a war zone," she said, gazing at the scene of devastation.
Another woman said simply: "It was Apocalyptic."
What was once the thriving main street of Amatrice, a medieval hilltop town in the middle of the Apennine mountains, now looked like it had been hit by a sustained artillery attack.
Famous for being the birthplace of spaghetti all' Amatriciana, one of Italy's best loved pasta dishes, it was one of the mountain communities hit hardest by the 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck yesterday.
The death toll from the quake is estimated at 120, but is expected to rise.
"Three quarters of the town is not there anymore," Sergio Pirozzi, the town's mayor, said. "The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there."
Seven years after a huge earthquake devastated the nearby town of L'Aquila, leaving about 300 dead, the same fate has befallen Amatrice and surrounding villages in a remote area that straddles the central regions of Umbria, Lazio and Marche.
A frantic search effort is under way in the smashed remains of the town, with rescue workers using dogs to try to detect signs of life.
"It was very, very violent and absolutely terrifying. I don't even know how to describe the sound. I managed to get out of my house but my pharmacy is totally destroyed," said Mauro Massimiliano, 49.
"So many people that I know are dead or dying. They say it was an earthquake of magnitude six.
"If that's true I'd hate to experience an eight or a nine. I can't imagine what that would be like," he said.
Simone Zinnai, 22, from a neighbouring village, said: "We all felt it this morning. It was awful. We ran out into the piazza and waited for it to end."
Pope Francis interrupted his weekly audience in St Peter's Square to express his condolences.
"To hear the mayor of Amatrice say his village no longer exists and knowing that there are children among the victims, is very upsetting for me," he said.
The Vatican sent a six-man team from its tiny fire service to the quake zone to help with the search and rescue effort.
The quake was so strong that it was felt 145km away in Rome, where authorities ordered structural tests on the Colosseum, as well as Rimini, over on the Adriatic coast and as far south as Naples.
A nationwide appeal was launched for people to donate blood to help the injured.
A sign at the entrance to Amatrice proclaims it as "Uno dei borghi piu belli d'Italia" - One of Italy's Most Beautiful Villages. Sadly, no longer.
A 1.5m-long stone lintel had fallen from the wall of an ancient church and stoved in the bonnet of a car like a giant spear.
Cars, crushed beneath chunks of masonry the size of table tops, lay covered in a fine white dust.
Houses had been sheared in half. In the parts still standing, furniture, shelves of food and chandeliers had been exposed to view.
Timber beams poked vertically into the sky from piles of rubble, and huge slabs of wall lay at weird angles.
In what had been one of the town's piazzas, rescue workers from a specialised caving unit of Italy's alpine rescue service dug away at a vast pile of rubble with their bare hands.
Carried on stretchers, victims were wrapped in the blankets and bedspreads in which they had been sleeping when the quake hit in the middle of the night.
"There are many people still under the rubble," said a Carabinieri officer watching the rescue effort. "It's very dangerous work digging into the wreckage - especially if there are more aftershocks."
One of the buildings worst hit was the convent and church of the Most Holy Crucifix.
The three-storey building folded in on itself, its historic bell tower crashing to the ground.
"I was sleeping but suddenly heard this strange noise. I woke up and saw that everything was destroyed," said Marianna, 35, a nun who was helping to look after the elderly people staying in the convent on a summer retreat.
She sustained a deep gash to her forehead and her hair was matted with blood and dust. She was rescued by a young local man who hauled her out of the wreckage.
They then heard more cries for help - two other nuns were trapped in the debris. This time it was a pair of local forest rangers who went to the rescue.
"They performed a very heroic act, they risked their lives. I'm sure God will reward them," Marianna said.
A panel on the outside of the convent that recounts its history notes that it was badly damaged by an earthquake before - back in 1639.
One of the first people to arrive on the scene was Father Fabio Gammarrota, 40, the parish priest - he reached Amatrice from a nearby village within 20 minutes of the quake striking.
"Houses had collapsed, there was dust and rubble everywhere. I started to dig with my bare hands," he said, his dog collar covered in dust.
"People were standing out on the street - at least those who were still alive were. I fear there are many who didn't make it."
Police allowed a middle-aged couple through a cordon to see what had become of their family home. They came back five minutes later, the woman sobbing on her husband's shoulder.
"It's totally collapsed, there's nothing left," he said.
Amatrice normally has a population of about 3000 but at this time of year, during the holiday season, tourists from Rome and other parts of Italy converge on the town to sample its famous spaghetti all' Amatriciana - made of pecorino cheese, tomato sauce and "guanciale" or pork cheek.
In response to the disaster, Italy mobilised a massive rescue effort.
Convoys of army trucks, bulldozers, ambulances and flat-bed lorries wound their way through the mountains, their task made harder by the narrow roads.
A makeshift first aid station was set up in the car park of the town's hospital, which had to be evacuated after deep cracks appeared in its walls.
"Why on earth did they build a hospital here, in a known earthquake zone?" one Italian journalist asked as he watched elderly patients being wheeled out on hospital beds.