On a day of desperate grief and tearful farewells, it was perhaps the most poignant image.
Italy held a mass funeral on Saturday for 35 of the 290 people who were killed by the country’s devastating earthquake, with the coffins of the victims lined up in a sports hall in the town of Ascoli Piceno, on the edge of the earthquake zone.
Among them were two small white caskets, holding the bodies of children whose lives were snuffed out when the quake hit at 3.36am on Wednesday, turning a picturesque area of lakes, forests and stone villages into a death zone.
In one of the coffins was the body of an eight-year-old girl, Giulia Rinaldo, who sacrificed her life by throwing herself on top of her four-year-old sister, Giorgia, when the ceiling of their bedroom came crashing down in the village of Pescara del Tronto.
Sniffer dogs managed to locate Giorgia and firemen dug her out of the rubble on Wednesday after she had been trapped in the embrace of her dead sister for 16 hours.
The little girl turned five on Saturday, just as the funeral of her sister was held.
Rescue workers believe Giulia’s instinctive decision to shield Giorgia saved the younger girl’s life, shielding her from falling masonry and creating an air pocket.
A note on her coffin read: Ciao, little one, I gave a hand trying to pull you out of that prison of rubble. Sorry we didn’t make it in time.
The note was written by a fireman called Andrea who took part in the desperate effort to extract the girls.
Unfortunately you had stopped breathing but I want you to know from up there that we did all that we could to pull you out. When I get home I will know that there is an angel watching me from heaven. Ciao Giulia, even if I never knew you, I love you. Andrea.
The sisters had become symbols of the earthquake, said Giovanni D’Ercole, the bishop who led the service.
“The older one, Giulia, who sadly died, was found protecting the little one, who was found terrified, her mouth full of dust. Death and life in an embrace, but life won. Life was renewed, in fact, because surviving an earthquake is like being born again, the bishop said in his homily at the mass funeral.
Since being rescued, Giorgia has reportedly stopped speaking and is in a state of deep shock.
The 35 dead came from Pescara del Tronto and Arquata del Tronto, once idyllic hillside villages, but now wastelands of rubble, dust and crushed cars.
Families wept at the side of coffins, clutched onto them in a last embrace and placed flowers and photographs of the dead on top of them.
The tiniest white coffin belonged to Marisol Piermarini, who was just 18 months old when she died.
She was asleep at her family’s holiday home in Arquata del Tronto when it was engulfed by the quake.
Her mother, Martina Turco, survived the earthquake that struck the nearby town of L’Aquila in 2009, and had moved away to escape the memories of her ordeal.
Italians observed a day of national mourning, and flags flew at half-mast across the country.
The funeral service was attended by Matteo Renzi, the prime minister, and Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president.
Although the vast majority of the victims were Italian, there were a few foreigners caught up in the quake, including three Britons who died – Will Henniker-Gotley and his wife Maria, and Marcos Burnett, 14, the son of another British family who were staying with them.
The Henniker-Gotleys had restored a beautiful farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of Sommati, a couple of miles from Amatrice, a hilltop town where 230 people died.
Marcos’s father, Simon, suffered a broken leg in the quake and Anne-Louise, his wife, a broken nose.
They are being treated in hospital in the town of Rieti, close to the quake zone, but are too upset to talk about their ordeal.
They are aware of all the love and affection coming from the UK concerning them but are not ready to relive the terrible events by talking about it for now, a hospital official told The Telegraph. They are together in the ward and want to remain alone for the moment.”
Rescuers are continuing to dig through the rubble of Amatrice, although the hopes of finding any survivors diminished by the hour and their efforts are being hampered by the 1,300 aftershocks that have hit the area since Wednesday’s quake.
Nine more bodies were recovered from the town on Saturday, including three that were found inside the ruins of the Hotel Roma.
Many survivors are now living in tent villages set up by the emergency services, where traumatised children are being encouraged to draw pictures and describe what they went through when the quake hit.
One child, Stella, 4, drew a picture of a large dragon and told volunteers: Last night a big dragon came to take me away and destroyed everything. I’m now scared that he is going to come back to get me.
Another little girl drew a picture of a house, with a person at the window shouting ‘Help’ and a figure climbing up a ladder saying ‘I will help you’.
Around 500 babies, toddlers and older children were affected by the quake and 21 died.
As the country mourned, stories of tragedy and survival continued to emerge.
Mattia Rendina, 19, who was on holiday from Rome in the now-obliterated village of Pescara del Tronto, said he was asleep on the third floor of the family home when the earth began to shake violently. Within moments, the house collapsed and he plummeted downwards as the building folded in on itself.
I went to bed. All of a sudden I woke up and found myself falling down in an explosion of plaster. From the third floor I ended up in the basement, he told Corriere della Sera newspaper. He remained trapped in the rubble for hours until being rescued. His mother Wilma died in the same house.
Tony Di Giacomo, 28, a baker, was one of the few people awake when the quake hit at 3.36am – he was busy preparing the next day’s bread.
When his bakery collapsed, he was hit by falling plaster and masonry. He described how he was buried alive for nearly four hours until firefighters managed to dig him out. He sustained a broken leg.
Gabriele Pedicone, eight years old, lost his entire family in the disaster – his mother Letizia, his father Gianluca and his sister, Martina.
Like so many others, the family were originally from the mountain area but had returned to the region for a summer holiday from their home in Rome.
A married couple who were crushed to death when a house collapsed in Amatrice were discovered by rescuers in a tight embrace.
Paola Rascelli, 43, and her husband Fabrizio Trabalza, 45, were on holiday from Rome and had been posting photos of themselves on social media just hours before the quake struck.
While the oldest victim of the earthquake was 93, the youngest was just five months.
“Even if I didn’t know them my heart broke for them,” a local woman, Luciana Cavicchiuni, said as the funeral got underway. “These things should not happen.
While most of the buildings that collapse were centuries-old stone and timber structures, modern buildings also fell, including a school in Amatrice that was renovated in 2012 and was supposed to be quake-proof.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the failings, including the collapse of a recently-restored bell tower in the town of Accumoli, which smashed through the roof of an adjacent building and wiped out a family of four.
“What happened cannot just be considered fate,” said Giuseppe Saieva, the prosecutor who is leading the inquiry.
“If these buildings had been constructed like they are in Japan then they would not have collapsed,” he told La Repubblica newspaper.
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