AMATRICE, Italy More than two dozen coffins were laid out in a marquee on Tuesday ahead of a state funeral for some of the victims of an earthquake which levelled communities in central Italy last week, killing at least 292 people.
Relatives and friends gathered around the caskets, including those of two small children, which were carried into the tent in pouring rain after a summer storm broke over Amatrice, the worst-hit town from the Aug. 24 quake.
Builders worked through the night hurriedly preparing the funeral site after furious locals warned they would boycott the event when they found out that the authorities planned to hold it in the city of Rieti, more than 60 km (37 miles) away.
The bodies were originally taken to Rieti and officials said it would be easier to hold a mass funeral there rather than in the devastated Amatrice, but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi ordered a change of plan in the face of the local anger.
In the centre of Amatrice, which was voted last year one Italy’s most beautiful, crews continued to dig for bodies under mounds of rubble left by the 6.2 magnitude quake.
Speaking before the funeral of the 28 victims, Father Luigi Aquilini, an 84-year-old retired priest from Amatrice, said he helped identify some of the dead.
“Most of them were crushed. You couldn’t recognise their faces, so we had to understand who they were from their rings, their tattoos,” Aquilini said. “Buildings can be rebuilt, but the community? Families were shattered…so many children died.”
Of the 292 confirmed dead, 231 were found in Amatrice. In all, 21 children died. A number of foreigners were among the dead, including 11 Romanians and three Britons.
Renzi, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos were expected to attend the funeral, which was set to start at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), the Civil Protection Agency said.
Many of those who died in Amatrice were not residents and their funerals are being held in their hometowns. Tuesday’s ceremony had been expected to involve 38 victims, but at the last minute the number was reduced without any explanation.
A fireman used a rope to hoist a wooden statue of Christ borrowed from a nearby church above a makeshift altar for Tuesday’s service. Hours before the ceremony, relatives placed bouquets of flowers and pictures of their loved ones on the simple wooden coffins.
In the town centre, emergency workers used mechanical diggers and bulldozers to search for bodies, with up to 10 people still believed to be missing under the debris.
It rained on Tuesday for the first time since the quake, complicating the search efforts and setting an even more sombre mood.
It is the second state-sponsored funeral in three days. On Saturday rites were held for victims of the quake from the adjoining Marche region. Amatrice is in the region of Lazio.
Controversy has grown over poor construction techniques, which may have been responsible for some of the deaths.
Investigators are looking into work done on the bell tower in Accumoli, which was recently restored but collapsed during the quake onto the home of a family of four, killing them all.
A court sequestered the half-demolished school building in Amatrice, which had recently been remodelled in part to help it withstand earthquakes.
Italy sits on two seismic fault lines. Many of its buildings are hundreds of years old and susceptible to earthquake damage.
Almost 30 people died in earthquakes in northern Italy in 2012 and more than 300 in the city of L’Aquila in 2009.
(Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli and Matteo Berlenga; writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Andrew Roche and Crispian Balmer)
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