SAN GIULIANO DI PUGLIA, Italy – Sobbing out the goodbyes they'd thought they wouldn't have to say for decades, the village of San Giuliano di Puglia held a funeral Sunday for the 26 children and three adults who were crushed to death when the village school collapsed during an earthquake.
The quake struck Thursday in the town of fewer than 1,200 people.
Though the prevailing sound was that of wails and weeping, applause rang out when President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and his wife, Franca, arrived, fighting back their own tears, for the service under a tent at the outskirts of the now-evacuated town.
The loss was felt at every level of the town. The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Pier Ferdinando Casini, embraced the town's mayor, whose daughter was among a class of nine first-graders who all died.
Authorities opened a criminal probe and want to learn why the 49-year-old school collapsed in the magnitude-5.4 temblor while most buildings did not.
A quake of such intensity is not usually strong enough to knock down a building that has been built or reinforced to meet modern earthquake standards.
One mother whose 8-year-old son died called on politicians to improve safety in the village.
"I am Luigi's mamma," said Nunziatina Porrazzo. "I'm the mother of all the angels of San Giuliano di Puglia."
Then to applause at the end of the ceremony she appealed to politicians: "I ask that all schools be made safe. I don't want any mamma or daddy to ever weep for their children."
Bishop Tommaso Valentinetti, from the nearby Adriatic town of Termoli, which was also damaged in the quake, appealed to Italy's president and the politicians at the funeral to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
"Help us to be vigilant so these tragedies don't happen, to prevent such a terrible experience from happening again," the bishop said.
At the altar, the bishop read the names of the victims, starting with the teacher, then the children, then the two elderly women who were killed in their damaged homes:
The bishop said the mourners were confronting the "mystery of death."
"We want to be aware of all our fragility and our finality," the bishop said.
While local children played guitars and violins and a choir sang "Glory to God," a priest gazed down on the sea of coffins before him, a vacant look in his eyes.
At the funeral, a boy tried to push his way through a line of policeman to reach a child's coffin, one of a long row of white caskets. Photos of smiling children were placed on the coffins surrounded by a thicket of white flowers.
Stuffed toy animals, dolls and sports trophies were nestled among the flowers covering the coffins. Twenty-six white caskets were followed by the three, brown mahogany ones of the adult victims.
Policemen, firefighters, soldiers and paramedics carried the coffins up a winding, dirt road to the cemetery. Relatives of the dead followed on foot, weeping and clinging to each other.
Alessio and Marzia Calvani, the parents themselves of a first-grader who survived, brought blankets from Termoli for those staying in tents.
"It's terrible what happened here. I can only imagine what these parents feel," said the father.
The funeral tent was set up near the town's sports center, which had been used as a makeshift morgue as rescuers extracted body after body from under the slabs of concrete.
Many surviving children suffered fractured arms and legs and severe chest injuries, and some 140 injured people from the region remained hospitalized.
Investigating magistrates who inspected the site Saturday said they would look into whether manslaughter or negligence charges were warranted.
Questions also mounted Saturday about why the entire region — about 80 miles northeast of Naples — hadn't been declared a quake-prone zone, particularly after a 1980 quake in the Naples area killed 2,570 people and left 30,000 homeless.
Such a designation would have required stiffer building codes in a part of Italy where illegal, substandard construction is widespread.
The engineer who designed the school renovations, Giuseppe La Serra, 48, told the ANSA news agency Saturday that he added two classrooms — not an entire story, as had been reported — to the structure and that the renovations conformed to regulations. He denied reports heavy cement had been used.
Had the building been zoned as a quake-prone area, the renovations would have been carried out to a higher standard, he said.
"I think about these children who died, I think continuously and I haven't slept for days," La Serra was quoted as saying. "But I repeat, my conscience is clear and I would have wanted to be there with the firemen to dig."
A score of towns and villages in the Molise and Puglia regions were rattled by the quake and subsequent aftershocks.
Authorities ordered 5,500 people evacuated, and nearly 3,000 people were living in tents or trailers.
Authorities said they hoped to soon find warmer bungalows for those whose homes were left unstable or heavily damaged.
Residents forced to take shelter in blue tents — heated by portable radiators — were aching to return home, even as several aftershocks continued through Sunday.
The school's principal, Giuseppe Colombo, confirmed Saturday that all nine students in the first grade had died, wiping out the village's 6-year-olds.
"Our job now is to make sure that those who survived are not traumatized by their memory of those who died," Colombo said.
It was not clear why the Calvanis' child was not included in the count.
When asked whether the school would be rebuilt on the same site, he said: "We have to choose another place and cancel the memory of this place completely."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.