AMATRICE, Italy — An Italian bishop issued a veiled critique of the suspected shoddy construction behind the high death toll of Italy’s earthquake and warned during a state funeral Tuesday that the rebuilding effort must not become a “looting” of state coffers.
“Earthquakes don’t kill. What kills the most is the work of man,” Rieti Bishop Domenico Pompili told the weeping crowds gathered in the shadow of Amatrice’s ruins for the funeral for some of the 292 victims.
Wails echoed under the roof of the open-sided tent as Pompili read aloud the names of the 242 people killed in the towns of Amatrice and Accumoli at the start of the service. And the crowd erupted in applause — a common gesture at Italian funerals — when dozens of white balloons were released at the end of the service.
On hand to concelebrate the Mass was Monsignor Konrad Krajewski, the pope’s chief almsgiver who frequently stands in for him when he wants to show his personal closeness to people in need. Francis has promised to visit the quake zone soon.
Civil protection officials said only 37 caskets were on hand since many families opted for private funerals elsewhere. Another 50 people were killed in neighboring Le Marche region where a state funeral was held over the weekend.
The 37 caskets faced the altar in rows, two little white caskets sandwiched between larger ones — evidence of the many children enjoying the final days of summer children who were killed. Relatives placed bouquets on the caskets and sat next to them quietly as rain fell outside.
In his homily, Pompili insisted that there was no choice but to rebuild Amatrice and Accumoli since abandoning the towns would “kill them a second time.” But he warned that the reconstruction effort must not become “a political fight or a sort of looting of various forms.”
Italy has a long history of organized crime and corrupt builders infiltrating public works contracts, especially those earmarked for reconstruction after natural disasters. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the Aug. 24 quake since many buildings crumbled despite having been renovated with public funds for anti-seismic improvements.
The ANSA news agency said Rieti chief prosecutor Giuseppe Saieva ordered Amatrice’s collapsed elementary school to be sequestered on Tuesday and entrusted Italy’s financial police with investigating how public funds destined for anti-seismic renovations across the region were used.
The school collapsed during the quake despite being renovated in 2012 using earthquake funds. In addition, the church tower in nearby Accumoli collapsed on a home, killing a family of four, despite also having been recently renovated with earthquake funds.
Italian news reports, meanwhile, have said that many other buildings in the area were flagged as being at high seismic risk, and yet nothing was done to them despite having funds made available.
Saieva is investigating what was stipulated in the contracts to restore the buildings and what exactly was done.
Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi, who was the first to give state radio the alarm minutes after the 3:36 a.m. quake that “the town isn’t here anymore,” wept as he recalled those who died.
“When I heard the names of the victims (at the start of Mass), it was the butcher, the baker, the beekeeper, the girl who went to school with my children,” he said to applause at the end of the service. “You can imagine the pain.”
Echoing the bishop, he insisted that Amatrice must be rebuilt where it is, and not allow a “new town” to be rebuilt nearby.
“These people died because they loved this land and we want to stay,” he said.
Initially, authorities planned to hold the funeral in an airport hangar in the provincial capital of Rieti, 65 kilometers (40 miles) away, citing safety and organizational concerns. The quake area has seen more than 2,500 aftershocks and faced logistical problems in bringing relatives and officials into a town with only one serviceable access road.
But grieving residents rebelled at plans to let them watch it on TV or be bussed to Rieti, where many bodies were being housed in a makeshift morgue at the airport. Premier Matteo Renzi reversed course late Monday, and on Tuesday was in the crowd at the funeral, along with President Sergio Mattarella, consoling survivors and thanking rescue crews.
Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos also was to attend since 11 of the dead were Romanians. Some 8,000 to 10,000 Romanians live in the quake zone, many working in agriculture or as caregivers. Pompili noted their presence and he also greeted the area’s Orthodox bishop and the local imam, both of whom attended the funeral.
For those who survived, Tuesday’s funeral was only one step in tackling a long-term trauma.
“They’re living through a blackout,” said Letizia Bellabarba, a social worker who is tending to survivors. “I mean, in 20 seconds — that’s how long the earthquake lasted — in 20 seconds their life changed. So they are disoriented, because they feel they were left without a future.”
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.
A previous version of this story removed an erroneous reference to a magnitude of 4.2.