- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

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 tiny children’s caskets resting on top.

Italians joined in a collective 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 hard-hit L’Aquila.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a message urging survivors not to give up hope. And Prime Minister 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 289 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, fire department rescue crews started digging in the rubble of an apartment building in downtown L’Aquila when dogs trained to look for survivors indicated that some life might be in the debris, Civil Protection spokesman Luca Spoletini said. But fire officials at the scene cautioned against concluding anyone had survived.

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

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

Amid the rows of simple varnished wooden coffins draped with flowers, five small white caskets containing the remains of the youngest victims rested on those of their parents.

Many who gathered at the special Mass on military grounds in the medieval town of L’Aquila were on crutches or had bruises, bandages and other signs of injury. Some wore sweat pants or tracksuits — the only clothing they had managed to find since fleeing their homes.

In a message read by his press 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, noting that the quake was felt at the Vatican, 60 miles to the southwest. The pope has promised to travel to the region sometime after Easter.

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, ANSA quoted the L’Aquila archdiocese as announcing, without saying how much had been donated.

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, Cardinal 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.”

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 in the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Berlusconi and other government officials were among the 10,000 people attending the funeral, held outdoors because none of the region’s churches were stable enough for the ceremony.

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

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