Grieving relatives today collapsed over flower-draped caskets of the victims of Italy’s worst earthquake in three decades as the nation joined in a day of mourning.
The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was to preside over an exceptional Good Friday funeral Mass for about 200 victims, whose coffins were lined up on a vast military ground in the quake-stricken city of L’Aquila. Some of the 289 victims had already been buried privately.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi and other key government officials were among the 10,000 mourners expected for the outdoor ceremony beneath Abruzzo’s snow-capped mountains. The funeral is being held outdoors because none of the region’s churches is stable enough for the ceremony.
“Today will be a moment of great emotion. How can one not be moved by so much pain?” Berlusconi said, shortly before departing for L’Aquila for the funeral.
“These are our dead today, they are the dead of the whole nation,” he said.
Volunteers guided mourners to the caskets of their loved ones. Each of the simple varnished wooden coffins, graced with either a cross or a crucifix and with a bouquet of flowers, bore a golden plaque with the name of the deceased, the dates of their birth and death.
Small white caskets holding the quake’s youngest victims rested on larger coffins, presumably those of a parent or close relative. Berlusconi said 20 children and teenagers were among the dead.
A woman grieved over a casket draped in soccer jerseys and holding the silver-framed photo of a smiling young man with thick blond hair.
Inside the enormous hangar that has served as a makeshift morgue, dark-suited men reflected solemnly on the moment, gingerly touching several plain wooden caskets that remained there before the ceremony, as if in a final farewell.
The Vatican 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 in not normally celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Today is a ’Via Crucis’ for each of us,” said Stefania Pezzopane, one of the top officials of the medieval city. The “Via Crucis,” or “Way of the Cross,” is the procession held on Good Friday in commemoration of Jesus’ suffering before crucifixion.
The 6.3-magnitude quake struck on Monday at 3.32 am, catching many in their sleep. Numerous buildings collapsed and entire blocks were reduced to piles of rubble.
L’Aquila was among the hardest hit, but the quake damaged some 26 towns in the central mountainous region of Abruzzo.
Yesterday L’Aquila took a halting step toward normality as some shopkeepers reopened for business and firefighters began entering buildings to grab essential items for the homeless.
Aftershocks, including some strong ones, continued to rattle residents – nearly 18,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the stricken region.
An additional 10,000 have been put up in seaside hotels, out of the quake zone, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L’Aquila’s main train station, where nearly 700 people spent the night.