April 10, 2009 / 8:12 AM / 10 years ago

Italy holds state funeral as quake toll hits 289

L’AQUILA, Italy (Reuters) - Italy held a state funeral Friday for victims of its worst earthquake in three decades, as the death toll climbed to 289 and survivors voiced anger that houses simply collapsed.

An Italian military Carabinieri salutes as hearses arrive at a cemetery after a state funeral in L'Aquila April 10, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Thousands of mourners prayed before 205 coffins covered by flowers and photos of the dead, laid out on the parade ground of a police academy in the mountain city of L’Aquila, the worst hit by Monday’s 6.3 magnitude quake, before being taken for burial.

Small white caskets with the bodies of children lay on their parents’ coffins, some with a favorite toy placed on top. The youngest was a five-month-old boy, killed with his mother.

“These dead will always be with us, each one of them. The children, the students, all of them,” said 59-year-old mourner Daniela. “I’m filled with pain but we must remain hopeful. We’re a strong people here, I’ve seen lots of courage and solidarity.”

Piero Faro, paying his respects to a family friend who died with her son, said sadness was mixed with “a lot of anger. Their building simply disintegrated. This should not have happened.”

Some mourners kissed and hugged coffins at a mass led by the second highest priest in the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

“I feel spiritually present in your midst and share your anguish,” said a message read out from Pope Benedict.

Flags flew at half-mast on a national day of mourning, shops lowered shutters, airports stopped take-offs for a minute’s silence and traffic wardens removed their bright jackets.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared emotional as he offered comfort to bereaved relatives. The billionaire premier offered to put up some of the thousands of people made homeless in some of his luxurious villas dotted around the country.

“I will do what I can too, by offering some of my houses,” said the 72-year-old media mogul, Italy’s second richest man.

POSSIBLE SURVIVOR?

Five days after the earthquake, rescuers were still sifting through the rubble.

Hopes of finding at least one more survivor were lifted on Friday after rescuers in L’Aquila detected a noise coming from beneath the debris. Still, they cautioned it could just be an animal.

“We called in the sniffer dogs. The dogs got excited and barked. It could mean there is a human being alive,” a firefighter told Reuters.

Firefighters accompanied some people into their homes to retrieve personal items as soldiers guarded against looters. Berlusconi said four Romanians had been arrested for looting.

Violent aftershocks, some felt in nearby Rome, continued to shake Abruzzo region overnight, further terrifying survivors.

The number of people made homeless by the quake has risen to almost 40,000, Berlusconi said, with 24,000 living in emergency camps and 15,000 given shelter in hotels or private homes.

“Beneath the rubble can be felt the wish to start over, rebuild and dream once more,” said Cardinal Bertone, voicing the hope of “rebirth” which Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday.

But some survivors did not find much comfort in religion.

“Now the professionals of prayer are praying, saying mass. Everybody prays: popes, archpopes, bishops, archbishops, excellencies, eminences, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and yet Jesus Christ sends us an earthquake,” said Francesco Pagani, an aged survivor sitting in one of the emergency camps.

Attention is now starting to turn to the reconstruction of a region that relies on tourism, farming and family firms. More than half the companies in Abruzzo have been put out of action.

“I’ve lost so many friends. My house is ruined, the business I ran after years of sacrifice has collapsed,” said mechanic Guido Pietropaoli, living in a tent with his pregnant partner. “I really hope they help us.”

Slideshow (16 Images)

One estimate put the damage at up to 3 billion euros ($4 billion), but its impact on Italy’s nearly 2-trillion-euro economy, already mired in recession, is expected to be limited.

The government has announced an inquiry after President Giorgio Napolitano said shoddy construction may be behind the collapse of modern buildings that should have been quake-proof.

Writing by Stephen Brown; additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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