Italy Quake Toll Tops 270; Pope Set to Visit

Obama phones Italian PM to share condolences with quake victims

Rescue teams Wednesday pulled more bodies from the buildings shattered by a deadly earthquake in central Italy and Pope Benedict XVI said he would visit the shocked and injured people of the area as soon as possible.

The death toll has reached 272, the ANSA news agency reported, citing police. That is up from the 260 announced earlier in the day by Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who said 16 of the dead were children. He also said 100 injured survivors were in serious condition. Officials had said the toll was being revised upward to reflect the recovery of new bodies.

Officials have already begun discussing rebuilding the fallen region and reopening schools, although they stressed it would take a month or two to have a clear idea of the scope of the damage.

"For now the needs are basic. The people in the camps, they don't have toothbrushes, they don't have toothpaste," said Massimo Cialente, mayor of the hard-hit city of L'Aquila. "You can't find a place to buy cigarettes or get a coffee."

A funeral for many of the victims was scheduled for Friday morning, the premier said. The Vatican granted a dispensation so that the Mass could be celebrated on Good Friday, the only day in the year in which Mass in not celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church.

The magnitude-6.3 quake hit L'Aquila and several towns covering 230 square miles (600 square kilometers) in central Italy early Monday, leveling buildings and reducing entire blocks to piles of rubble. It was the worst quake to hit Italy in three decades.

One 98-year-old survivor, rescued by firemen in the hamlet of Tempera, 30 hours after quake, impressed Italy with her fortitude.

Maria D'Antuono said in an interview on private Italia Uno TV network, that while she lay in her bed, surrounded by pieces of fallen plaster, she passed the time by crocheting.

When firefighters arrived to help her out of her home, she ate some crackers, and then told her rescuers, "At least let me comb my hair" before she was brought outside.

Two people were arrested for looting Wednesday in the nearly leveled town of Onna, the ANSA news agency said, citing police. They had an estimated €80,000 ($105,000) worth of merchandise.

Berlusconi said looting in the quake zone was on the rise and that the government was considering an increase penalties. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters that anti-looting police patrols would also be stepped up.

On Wednesday, two bodies were pulled from the partially collapsed dormitory in L'Aquila where two more people were believed still trapped, ANSA reported. The Israeli Embassy confirmed one of the bodies recovered was an Israeli student from Galilee.

Two others were pulled from the wreckage of a building where a 20-year-old woman was rescued late Tuesday, ANSA said.

The Vatican said Benedict would visit the affected area sometime after Easter Sunday and that he does not want to interfere with relief operations. The pope praised the aid operations as an example of how solidarity can help overcome "even the most painful trials."

"As soon as possible I hope to visit you," Benedict said Wednesday at the Vatican.

Of the 28,000 people homeless, 17,700 were being housed in tent cities, spending much of their time on line — waiting for food and to use the bathrooms. They spent a second night in chilly mountain temperatures, sometimes without heat in their tents and being jolted by aftershocks.

In addition, an additional 10,000 people were housed in hotels along the coast, bringing the overall number of homeless to almost 28,000, Berlusconi said.

Since the quake early Monday, some 430 aftershocks have rumbled through the region, including some strong ones, said Marco Olivieri of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome.

"I slept so badly because I kept feeling the aftershocks," said Daniela Nunut at one of the tent camps set up across the city of L'Aquila. The 46-year Romanian-born woman said she and her companion plan to stay in the tent for now. "What can you do? You can't go into the building."

A supermarket, though, is expected to open on Wednesday and officials were trying to make sure a doctor was available in pharmacies to write prescriptions, Cialente, the mayor, said.

In another indication that officials were trying to look beyond the immediate crisis, Berlusconi said he was considering asking each of Italy's 100 provinces to pick a reconstruction project around the region to take charge of.

He also said a new town could be built on L'Aquila's outskirts, primarily to house young people. He stressed it would not be an alternative to rebuilding L'Aquila, but rather to add to the city's housing stock.

AIR Worldwide, a specialist in estimating catastrophe risks, said Wednesday that insured losses to buildings and contents from the earthquake could be as high as €400 million ($530 million).

About 140 inmates at L'Aquila's prison were transferred overnight to nearby prisons because the facility suffered damges in the quake, Berlusconi said.

Interior Minister Maroni said the rescue efforts would likely continue until Easter Sunday, beyond the period originally indicated by Berlusconi.

"It all depends on the conditions, if the person under the rubble has any air or water," Cristian Martinez, from the Spanish rescue organization Unidad Canina, whose dogs have been sent across the world after quakes and other catastrophes.

So far, the dogs had found no signs of any living human beings in the debris. "But we don't give up hope," said Martinez.

Officials said some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed in the 26 cities, towns and villages around L'Aquila, a city of 70,000 that is the regional capital of Abruzzo.

Teams started inspecting some buildings still standing Wednesday, including an 18th-century church in downtown L'Aquila, which had been damaged in the quake. Teams also began surveying houses to see if residents can move back in, Berlusconi said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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