ASCOLI PICENO, Italy (AP) — A young man wept over a little girl’s white coffin, while a woman nearby gently stroked another small casket, as Italians bid farewell Saturday to victims of the devastating earthquake that struck a mountainous region of central Italy this week.
As Italians observed a day of national mourning, President Sergio Mattarella and Premier Matteo Renzi joined grieving family members for a state funeral for 35 of the 290 people killed in Wednesday’s quake.
Mourners, among them many injured, wept and held each other in a sweltering community gym in the town of Ascoli Piceno as the local bishop, Giovanni D’Ercole, urged them to rebuild their communities.
“Don’t be afraid to cry out your suffering — I have seen a lot of this — but please do not lose courage,” D’Ercole told them. “Only together can we rebuild our houses and our churches. Together, above all, we will be able to restore life to our communities.”
Before the mass funeral, people hugged and cried as they bid their final farewells to loved ones in the gym, which was transformed into a makeshift chapel for the ceremony. Among the victims were two girls, 18-month-old Marisol Piermarini and 9-year-old Giulia Rinaldo, whose younger sister survived against the odds beneath the rubble, still holding her dead sibling.
Hundreds of locals gathered outside to mourn and show support.
“It is a great tragedy. There are no words to describe it,” said town resident Gina Razzetti. “Each one of us has our pain inside. We are thinking about the families who lost relatives, who lost their homes, who lost everything.”
The magnitude 6.2 quake struck at 3:36 a.m. Wednesday and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, killing at least 290 people and injuring nearly 400. The death toll has steadily risen as rescue workers continue to find bodies buried in rubble. Nobody has been found alive in the ruins since Wednesday, and hopes have faded of finding any more survivors.
Before Saturday’s mass funeral, the president visited Amatrice, the town that bore the brunt of destruction with 230 fatalities. Eleven others died in nearby Accumoli and 49 more in Arquata del Tronto, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Amatrice.
Mattarella arrived by helicopter at the edge of Amatrice, a once-picturesque stone town. He was shown the extent of the damage by the mayor, Sergio Pirozzi. The president met and thanked rescue workers who have been working since early Wednesday.
Saturday’s mass funeral involved most of the dead from Arquata del Tronto, 25 kilometers (16 miles) to the southwest of Ascoli Piceno. Other funerals took place Friday, with the majority still to come.
Giulia’s sister, Giorgia, was pulled alive from the rubble Wednesday after being buried for many hours. She turned 4 on Saturday and was recovering in a hospital next door to the site of the funeral.
The bishop told mourners that, when the firefighters recovered the two sisters, they were holding each other.
“The older one, Giulia, was spread out on the smaller one, Giorgia. Giulia, dead, Giorgia, alive. They were in an embrace,” D’Ercole said.
Many children and elderly people were killed. Some of the older residents had grandchildren visiting in the last days of summer.
“The melancholy grabs on to your heart. You feel a sense of weakness, of depression,” said Fiore Ciotto, a resident of Ascoli Piceno who attended the funeral. “An event like this weakens you physically and mentally.”
Overnight, residents of the area were rattled yet again by a series of aftershocks. The strongest, at 4:50 a.m., had a magnitude of 4.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, while the Italian geophysics institute measured it at 4.
The Italian institute and other authorities say the earthquake caused the ground below Accumoli to sink 20 centimeters (8 inches), according to satellite images.
Many people left homeless have been spending their nights in tent cities where volunteers have been working to provide basic amenities.
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