- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

L’AQUILA, Italy | Pope Benedict XVI embraced the survivors of Italy’s deadly earthquake Tuesday as he walked through their muddy tent camp and demanded “serious soul-searching” from those responsible for the shoddy construction blamed for many of the 296 deaths.

In his first visit to central Italy since the April 6 quake, Benedict toured the three symbols of destruction that have come to epitomize the region’s grief: the leveled hamlet of Onna, where 40 of the 300 residents died; the crumbled basilica of L’Aquila; and the ruins of a university dormitory whose collapse has spurred criminal probes into negligence.

Showing a relaxed, pastoral side rarely seen in the Vatican’s typically controlled appearances, Benedict prayed with the quake’s homeless in the rain, telling them that the church was suffering along with them and that they should keep up hope and rebuild, better than before.

But at the same time, he told them that “as a civil community, some serious soul-searching is necessary, so that at any moment responsibilities never fail.”

“If this happens, L’Aquila - though wounded - will be able to fly again,” Benedict said, referring to the city’s name, which means eagle.

The 6.3-magnitude quake claimed 296 lives in the dozens of towns and villages in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. About 50,000 people were driven from their homes, and thousands of buildings were toppled or heavily damaged.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the shoddy construction blamed for many of the building collapses, looking into both the construction work and materials used amid allegations that sea sand was illegally mixed with cement, corroding it and weakening it.

In Onna, the pontiff appealed to government institutions and companies to turn the relief work into long-term projects for quality rebuilding, saying the region needed “beautiful and solid” homes and churches.

In L’Aquila, the regional capital, Benedict met with a dozen students outside what remains of L’Aquila’s collapsed university dormitory, for days a main focal point of grief as rescue workers searched the debris for students trapped inside. At least seven died at the site.

The dorm is one of the focal points of prosecutors’ investigations, as well as L’Aquila’s hospital, both of which were built after seismic standards in this quake-prone region were raised.

The pontiff had been scheduled to fly to the area by helicopter, but heavy winds and rains forced the Vatican to scrap that plan.

Benedict had said he had wanted to visit the area sooner, but didn’t want to interfere with relief work.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II traveled to Naples almost immediately after a devastating quake - a visit that was criticized because the heavy security arrangements complicated rescue work. After the 1997 quake in Umbria, John Paul waited over three months before visiting the area.

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