Day of mourning in Italy as funerals held for quake dead

A woman (right) comforts her husband as rescuers recover the body of his mother in Amatrice, Italy, Aug 26, 2016.
A woman (right) comforts her husband as rescuers recover the body of his mother in Amatrice, Italy, Aug 26, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

AMATRICE, Italy (AFP)   – Italy prepared for an emotional day of mourning Saturday (Aug 27)  with flags across the country to fly at half mast in honour of the 281 victims of a devastating earthquake.

Grieving families began burying their dead Friday as rescue workers combing the rubble said they had found no new survivors in the remote mountain villages in central Italy blitzed by Wednesday’s powerful pre-dawn quake.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President Sergio Mattarella were set to attend a funeral service Saturday in the city of Ascoli-Piceno for some of the 46 people who died in the mountain villages of Arquata del Tronto and Pescara del Tronto.

A local gymnasium has been transformed into a chapel, where bereaved relatives came to pray in front of thirty coffins, including a small, white casket for Giulia, nine, whose body protected her sister, Giorgia, five – one of the last people to be pulled from the rubble alive in Pescara del Tronto.

But some families have chosen not to participate in the solemn commemoration.

“Why attend? To listen to politicians? They always say the same thing – that they stand with us and that it must never happen again... always the same thing!” said one inconsolable woman, quoted by the news agency Agi.

The first funerals were held Friday in Pomezia, south of Rome, home of six of the victims, including an eight-year-old boy.

According to the most recent official toll, at least 388 people have been hospitalised with injuries, but no one has been pulled alive from the piles of collapsed masonry since Wednesday evening.

“We will go on searching and digging until we are certain there is no one left,” said Luigi D’Angelo, a Civil Protection officer working in the town of Amatrice, where the death toll stands at 221.

Forestry police officer Valerio Checchi said he expected rescuers to shortly start using mechanical diggers to move debris in a sign virtually all hope of finding survivors has gone.

“We will still use thermal devices that can detect the presence of human bodies.” said Checchi.

As powerful aftershocks closed winding mountain roads and made life dangerous for more than 4,000 professionals and volunteers engaged in the rescue effort, survivors voiced dazed bewilderment over the scale of the disaster that struck their sleepy communities.

“I have been through earthquakes before, but this was not a quake, it was an apocalypse,” said Anacleto Perotti, 66.

This resident of the tiny hamlet of St Lorenzo Flaviano has gone back to his house, which survived the quake. But he is sleeping in an armchair.

“It is too scary in bed. After a quake comes fear, depression takes you over from the inside.” Renzi has declared a state of emergency for the regions affected by Wednesday’s quake, which occurred in an area that straddles Umbria, Lazio and Marche.

Renzi also released an initial tranche of 50 million euros (S$76 million) in emergency aid.

Over 2,000 people who spent the night in hastily-erected tented villages were shaken by a 4.8 magnitude aftershock just after 6am (12am Singapore) on Friday morning.

More than 900 aftershocks have rattled the region since Wednesday’s quake, which had a magnitude of 6.0-6.2 and triggered the collapse of hundreds of old buildings across dozens of tiny communities playing host to far more people than usual because of the summer holidays.

Quake experts estimate that the cost of the short-term rescue effort and mid- to longer-term reconstruction could exceed one billion euros.

There are also fears of a negative impact on an already-stagnating Italian economy, with tourism – which accounts for four per cent of GDP – certain to take a hit.

Analysts noted however that the disaster could help Renzi get clearance for reconstruction spending to be excluded from EU calculations of the country’s compliance with budget rules.

Renzi’s government and local authorities are now facing questions as to why there were so many deaths in a sparsely-populated area so soon after a 2009 earthquake in the nearby city of L’Aquila left 300 people dead.

That disaster, just 50 kilometres  to the south, underscored the region’s vulnerability to seismic events – but preparations for a fresh quake have been exposed as inadequate.

“Italy should have a plan that is not just limited to the management of emergency situations,” Renzi said.

He said that proofing centuries-old buildings against the risk of collapse in the event of a quake would be difficult but that more could be done.