Italy buries earthquake victims on day of sorrow


Grieving villagers filed past tiny white coffins today San Giuliano Di Puglia buried 29 people, all but three of them children killed when an earthquake levelled a school.

The heartbreak has been mixed with anger amid allegations that successive governments had ignored a report that could have prevented the tragedy, which is now the subject of a criminal inquiry.

Twenty-six children and a teacher were crushed in the rubble on Thursday when their primary school collapsed from the violence of the strong quake, which hit 5.4 on the Richter scale. Two elderly women were also killed when their houses collapsed.

Firefighters, policemen and other rescue workers carried the 29 coffins from the town's sports hall to the site of the service, held under a canopy outside the gym at the request of the bereaved families.

The simple boxes, white for the children and brown for the adults, were lined up in two rows on the ground in front of the altar. The children's coffins were covered with photographs, stuffed animals, puppets and books.

An improvised chorus accompanied by two guitarists and a violinist stood to the left of the altar. More than 100 yellow and white chrysanthemum wreaths decorated the coffins before being taken to the cemetery following the mass.

The children, all aged less than 10, represented the future of this tiny hilltop village of 1,500 close to Italy's eastern coast, whose only other resource is its olive trees.

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi attended the funeral with his wife, Franca. Pier Ferdinando Casini, president of the chamber of deputies, and two government ministers also attended.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi remained in Rome, where he called a ministerial meeting to address the situation following the week's quakes.

The funeral was held amid mounting anger over reports that recommendations to classify San Giuliano as an earthquake zone were never acted upon.

In a 1998 report, Italy's national geophysics and volcanology institute (INGV) reclassified the entire Molise region, in which the village lies, as a high-risk area. But its recommendations were never turned into law.

Some experts blamed the devastating collapse of the old wing on recent renovation work, during which a second storey of classrooms and heavy cement reinforcement to the upper walls and roof were added.