ASCOLI PICENO, Italy: Flags flew at half mast across Italy on Saturday as the country observed a day of mourning for the victims of an earthquake that killed nearly 300 people.
President Sergio Mattarella paid tribute to the “extraordinary effort” of more than 4,000 rescue experts and volunteers as he began what was set to be an emotionally charged day with a brief visit to Amatrice, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Rome.
The small mountain town suffered the heaviest losses in the disaster with around two thirds of the quake’s 284 confirmed victims buried under tons of collapsed masonry in its devastated center.
The elderly head of state looked visibly moved as he contemplated the site of a razed house on the edge of a zone that has been sealed off by rescue workers for fear of further collapses.
There are fears more bodies will be recovered in Amatrice, a holiday spot that was packed with visitors when the powerful quake struck in the early hours of Wednesday. And of the nearly 400 people hospitalized, several are reportedly in a critical state.
Emergency services are more confident that they have accounted for everyone in the smaller outlying hamlets to the north of Amatrice—some of which have been so badly damaged there are doubts as to whether they will ever be inhabited again.
The one-street village of Saletta had less than 20 permanent residents but with its population swollen by summer visitors 22 people died there.
“Saletta will disappear like so many tiny places,” predicted Marco Beltrame. The 28-year-old lost his aunt and uncle in the quake.
Mattarella was also due to visit the village of Accumoli before joining Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at a funeral for some of the victims in Ascoli Piceno, capital of Marche, one of three regions affected by the quake.
The first grieving families to bury their dead did so on Friday evening in Pomezia.
There were tear-drenched scenes as hundreds of residents of the small town south of Rome turned out to pay their respects to lost relatives, friends and neighbors who included an eight-year-old boy.
A large number of the victims were from the Rome area, where many former inhabitants of the mountains have moved for work, returning to family homes only at the height of summer. At least eight foreigners died, including three Britons, two Romanians and nationals of Canada, El Salvador and Spain.
Saturday’s funeral was for some of the 46 people who died in the villages of Arquata del Tronto and Pescara del Tronto, located in the mountains where Marche meets neighboring Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo.
A local gymnasium has been transformed into a chapel, where bereaved relatives came to pray in front of 30 coffins.
Among them was a small, white casket for nine-year-old Giulia, whose body protected her younger sister, Giorgia, for long enough for the five-year-old to be pulled from the rubble virtually unscathed.
She was one of the last survivors to be rescued and there have been no reports of anyone being found alive since late Wednesday.
With emotions still raw, some families chose not to take up the offer of state funerals.
“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 after identifying a relative in Amatrice.
Where they can, rescue workers have begun using diggers and other heavy lifting equipment to clear debris in the first steps towards the reconstruction which the government has promised to support.
But the operation has been severely hampered by powerful aftershocks—more than 1,300 since Wednesday—which have closed winding mountain roads, damaged key bridges and made life dangerous for exhausted emergency services.