Hopes of finding more survivors from Italy’s powerful earthquake faded on Friday, with the death toll rising to 278 and the rescue operation in some of the stricken areas called off.
Three days after the quake struck the mountainous heart of the country, sniffer dogs and emergency crews continued to scour the town of Amatrice, which was levelled in the disaster, but there was no sign of life beneath the debris.
“Only a miracle can bring our friends back alive from the rubble, but we are still digging because many are missing,” town mayor Sergio Pirozzi told reporters, saying, around 15 people, including some children, had not been accounted for.
In nearby villages, such as Pescara del Tronto, rescuers pulled out after all the inhabitants had been accounted for.
Italy plans to hold a state funeral for around 40 of the victims on Saturday, which will be held in the nearby city of Ascoli Piceno. A day of national mourning was announced, with flags due to fly at half mast around the country for the dead, who include a number of foreigners.
The civil protection department in Rome said 388 people were being treated for injuries in hospitals, and 40 of them were in critical condition. An estimated 2,500 people were left homeless by the most deadly quake in Italy since 2009.
Survivors with nowhere else to go are sleeping in neat rows of blue tents set up close to their flattened communities. The government has promised to rebuild the region, but some local people feared that would never happen.
“I’m afraid our village and others like it will just die. Most people don’t live here year round anyway. In the winter time the towns are virtually empty,” said Salvatore Petrucci, 77, who came from the nearby hamlet of Trisunga.
“We may be the last ones to have lived in Trisunga.”
More than 1,050 aftershocks have hit the area since the 6.2 magnitude quake early on Wednesday, bringing fresh damage to structures still standing. These included a bridge leading to Amatrice, which had to be closed on Friday, further complicating the rescue operation.
The original quake was so strong that the town nearest the epicentre, Accumoli, sank by 20 cm (7.87 inches), according to Italy’s geological institute.
By Friday, most of the outlying communities were quiet and empty, buildings lying in crumpled mounds, the innards of private homes exposed to the skies and belongings scattered in the debris.
“We have removed the last bodies that we knew about,” said Paolo Cortelli, a member of the Alpine Rescue national service who helped to recover about 30 bodies from Pescara del Tronto.
“We don’t know, and we might never know, if the number of missing that we knew about actually corresponds to the people who were actually under the rubble.”
The foreigners who died in the disaster included six Romanians, a Spanish woman, a Canadian and an Albanian. Three British holidaymakers, including a 14-year-old boy, also died.
The area is popular with vacationers and local authorities were struggling to pin down how many visitors were present when the quake hit.
The Romanian Foreign Ministry said 17 Romanians were still missing. Italy has a large Romanian community, and some of the victims were residents in the country.
The first funeral of a victim was held in Rome on Friday, for Marco Santarelli, the 28-year-old son of a senior state official, who died in the family’s holiday home in Amatrice.
“I cannot find the words to describe the grief of a father who outlives his own children. Perhaps there are no words,” Marco’s father, Filippo Santarelli, told Corriere della Sera newspaper.
A funeral service for six other victims, including an 8-year-old boy and two girls aged 14 and 15, was due to be held in their hometown of Pomezia, south of Rome, later on Friday.