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Italy Holds State Funeral For Quake Victims

VANESSA GERA and ARIEL DAVID   04/10/09 10:21 PM ET   AP

Aptopix Italy Earthquake

L'AQUILA, Italy — It was a scene that moved a nation: mourners clinging to one another and sobbing over neat rows of more than 200 coffins, some with the tiny caskets of children resting on top.

Italians joined in an outpouring of grief on Good Friday as victims of Italy's most devastating earthquake in a generation were remembered at an open-air funeral Mass in the hard-hit city L'Aquila.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI urged survivors not to give up, praying at the end of the Good Friday torch-let Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum that they may see the "star of hope." And Premier Silvio Berlusconi captured the pathos that swept the country, wondering aloud: "How can one not be moved by so much pain?"

The 6.3-magnitude temblor _ which killed at least 290 people and left nearly 40,000 homeless _ struck Monday at the start of Holy Week, heightening the suffering in this deeply Roman Catholic country.

On Friday evening, hours after the funeral, rescue crews started digging in the rubble of an apartment building in L'Aquila after dogs trained to look for survivors indicated that some life might be in the debris, Civil Protection spokesman Luca Spoletini said.

But officials cautioned against concluding there was a survivor.

"We will continue to dig until we have absolute certainty" that no one is alive, said Fire Cmdr. Antonio Gambardella, "but we have no illusions."

"We heard a ticking, a steady noise, but it could be water, or noise from a refrigerator," he said. Or the dogs might have sniffed out an odor left by people who had already been found.

Gambardella said rescuers were told that a cleaning woman occasionally came to the house, and she could have been a victim.

Engineers and geologists have said buildings constructed to seismic-safety standards should not have collapsed, raising the possibility that building codes weren't followed or that shoddy materials were used.

L'Aquila Prosecutor Alfredo Rossini said he had opened a probe into possible criminal blame for the collapses, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Firefighters picking through rubble told state TV Friday night that some of the reinforced concrete pillars they had removed seemed to have been made poorly, possibly with sand. Instead of cutting cleanly with a saw, in some buildings in L'Aquila, the pillars crumbled into dust, indicating that a lot of sand might have been mixed into the cement, they said.

Twenty children and teenagers were among the dead. The youngest victim would have turned 5 months on Easter Sunday.

Amid the rows of simple wood coffins, five small white caskets of children rested on those of their parents. On them lay mementos of lives cut short: a teddy bear, a toy motorcycle, a tiny T-shirt with a Tweetie Bird design.

Many who gathered at the special Mass on a military ground in the medieval town of L'Aquila were on crutches or had bruises and bandages. Some wore sweat pants or tracksuits _ the only clothing they had managed to find since fleeing their homes.

Firefighters, rangers and other rescue workers stood solemnly, their hands clasped in front of them. At least 10 mourners fainted during the ceremony, according to a doctor at the scene.

As survivors said their last goodbyes, outrage mingled with the grief.

"There is a lot of anger," said Daniele Cerrone, 32, who owned two now-destroyed pubs that catered to students. "Anger because it is unfair. Anger because it is not normal. Anger because there is no future."

In a message read by his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the pope told people in the quake-stricken central Abruzzo region that "this is the time to work together."

"Only solidarity will allow us to overcome this painful trial," said Benedict.

The pope has promised to travel to the region sometime after Easter. Popes usually hold off on visiting crisis zones to avoid disrupting rescue and recovery efforts.

Benedict donated the chalice and vestments used by L'Aquila's archbishop in the funeral and gave money to cover urgent necessities for the survivors, the Italian new agency ANSA quoted the L'Aquila archdiocese as announcing, without saying how much money.

The pontiff also is sending chocolate Easter eggs to the children living with their families in the tent cities. His secretary, Gaenswein, in a sign of his closeness and friendship, gave his wristwatch to the archbishop, ANSA said.

The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, presided over the funeral for about 200 of the dead. Some of the 289 victims had already been buried privately. Two bodies were found in the rubble as officials prepared for the ceremony.

Looking ahead to Easter Sunday celebrations, Bertone told the mourners: "It will be your Easter, an Easter which will be born once again from the rubble of a people who have suffered so many times in its history."

An imam briefly took the stage to address the relatives of an unknown number of Muslim victims. He too offered encouragement to all the mourners, who quietly applauded when he finished speaking.

Relatives in the front row bowed their heads, their shoulders shaking as they sobbed. A few ran their fingers over the caskets, each graced with either a cross or a crucifix, a bouquet of flowers and a golden plaque with the name of the deceased and the dates of birth and death.

After the service ended, uniformed police officers and rescue workers, some in bright orange uniforms, slowly carried the caskets away and loaded them into silver hearses. Soldiers in camouflage gear and black berets saluted each hearse as it left.

Many of the caskets were brought to a cement building inside L'Aquila's main cemetery and temporarily placed in burial niches. They were expected to remain there for about a month, pending registration of the dead and because the ground is still unstable, police and Red Cross officials said.

Berlusconi and other government officials were among the 10,000 people at the funeral, which was held outdoors because none of the region's churches was stable enough. Friday was declared a national day of mourning and many shops across the country were closed during the service.

The Vatican had granted a special dispensation for the Mass. Good Friday, which marks Jesus' death by crucifixion, is the only day in the year on which Mass is not normally celebrated.

The quake struck Monday at 3:32 a.m. while many slept. It reduced entire city blocks to rubble. Although L'Aquila was among the hardest hit, the quake damaged some 26 towns across Abruzzo.

Aftershocks, some of them strong, continued to rattle residents _ more than 24,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the region. An additional 15,000 have been put up in seaside hotels, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L'Aquila's main train station, where nearly 700 people spent the night.

Although there were no reports of widespread looting, Berlusconi announced Friday that authorities had arrested four Romanians for allegedly stealing items from homes and would try the accused at L'Aquila's military police barracks Friday night.

All four were acquitted of looting a few hours after state TV showed military police hustling the suspects _ two men and two women _ into the improvised courtroom.

Finance Police Ten. Col. Paolo Carretta told reporters one of the four was convicted of possessing burglar's tools and sentenced to six months in jail, the Italian news agency Apcom reported.

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AP correspondents Colleen Barry, Alessandra Rizzo, Frances D'Emilio and William J. Kole in Rome contributed to this report.

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Filed by Stuart Whatley  |