Italy bids final farewell to quake dead

11th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

The families of 205 of the 290 victims laid them to rest after the ceremony, with top government and Catholic Church dignitaries among a throng of more than 5,000.

L'Aquila -- Italy bade a final farewell Friday to the nearly 300 people killed in the earthquake that devastated the central Abruzzo region, with thousands attending an emotional funeral.

The families of 205 of the 290 victims laid them to rest after the ceremony, with top government and Catholic Church dignitaries among a throng of more than 5,000.

Many broke into sobs at the sight of so many coffins covered with floral wreaths and arrayed on red carpets at a military college near the devastated Abruzzo capital L'Aquila nestled in a valley of the Apennine mountains.

Small white children's coffins set atop brown ones holding adult victims deepened the sense of loss at the ceremony on Good Friday, the most sombre day of the Christian calendar marking the death of Jesus Christ.

A toy motorcycle was attached to one of the baby coffins.

Pope Benedict XVI told the mourners in a message: "In this tragic hour ... I feel spiritually close to you and share your anguish."

The pontiff, who is expected to visit the region after Easter, wished for "rapid healing for the wounded and courage to have the strength to continue," in the message read out by his personal secretary Georg Ganswein.

Many of the mourners had lost their homes in Monday's earthquake, and found their way to the funeral from one of the tent camps dotted around the area.

More than 800 aftershocks have rattled the region since Monday, and did not even stop for the funeral.

"It is with great mercy that we embrace with our thoughts the many victims torn from their families too soon by a cruel death," said Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone in his homily.

"The day after tomorrow we will celebrate Easter, and it will be your Easter, an Easter that will once again be a rebirth from the rubble for a people who have already suffered so many times through history," said Bertone, the Vatican's number two.

Imam Mohammed Nour recited prayers for the six Muslim victims "in the name of the one God", voicing his "solidarity and support for all those who survived."

Flags few at half mast on the national day of mourning for the dead, and the funeral was broadcast live on several television networks, while all the country's airports observed a minute of silence.

After the funeral, lines of hearses jammed the winding road leading up to a nearby hillside cemetery overlooked by snow-capped Apennine peaks.

There, a woman grasped the marble slab covering the burial niche where her son was laid to rest, sobbing: "Francesco! Francesco! Why did you leave me? I want to be in there with you! You were only 24!"

Some of the relatives prayed quietly by the tombs, others attached flowers and photographs of the departed to the slabs.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who comforted mourners along with President Giorgio Napolitano and other top Italian officials, said later Friday that he would open his homes to quake survivors.

"Many people have already offered up their houses to help the homeless from the earthquake and I too will do what I can by offering some of my residences," said the self-made billionaire, who owns at least four luxury villas around Italy.

Officials say nearly 40,000 people lost their homes, with a large chunk -- 24,000 -- scraping by in tent villages with a dearth of hot water, showers and electricity.

The earthquake, the worst in nearly 30 years, turned the area around the medieval walled city of L'Aquila into a disaster zone and flattened surrounding villages.

President Napolitano, while touring region on Thursday, blamed "widespread irresponsibility" for the collapse of many modern buildings and called for an "examination of conscience" by those responsible.

"How is it possible that essential standards were not applied, and why were the necessary inspections not carried out?" he asked.

The Italian government says billions of euros will be needed to repair or rebuild some 10,000 buildings damaged in the quake, and Berlusconi has said he expected European Union funds of up to 500 million euros (650 million dollars) over the next three years.


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