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Italy Mourns Earthquake Victims in Mass Funeral

Mourners in Italy prayed, hugged, wept and even applauded as coffins carrying earthquake victims passed by at a state funeral Saturday.

Firefighters carry the coffin of 9-year-old Giulia Rinaldo outside the gymnasium where the state funeral service for some of the victims of the earthquake that hit central Italy last Wednesday took place, in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, on Aug. 27, 2016.

Mourners in Italy prayed, hugged, wept and even applauded as coffins carrying victims of the country's devastating earthquake passed by at a state funeral Saturday, grieving as one nation after three desperate days of trying to save as many people as possible.

Gregorio Borgia / AP

Relatives mourn near coffins of some of the earthquake victims prior to the start of the funeral. 

In the central town of Ascoli Piceno, they gathered to bid farewell to 35 of the 291 people confirmed dead so far after the quake that struck a swath of countryside early Wednesday at the foothills of the central Apennine mountains.

Andrew Medichini / AP

Earthquake victim relatives embrace each other before the funeral.

Emotions that had been dammed up for days broke in a crescendo of grief. One young man wept over a little girl's white coffin. Another woman gently stroked another small casket. Many mourners were recovering from injuries themselves, some wrapped in bandages. Everywhere people knelt at coffins, tears running down their cheeks, their arms around loved ones.

MASSIMO PERCOSSI / EPA

Relatives mourn near coffins of some of the earthquake victims prior to the start of the funeral.

The caskets of 35 people had been brought to a community gym — one of the few structures in the area still intact and large enough to hold hundreds of mourners. The local bishop, Giovanni D'Ercole, celebrated Mass beneath a crucifix he had retrieved from one of the damaged churches in the picturesque area of medieval stone towns and hamlets.

Gregorio Borgia / AP

A woman kisses the coffin of 9-year-old Giulia Rinaldo as it is carried outside the gymnasium at the end of the state funeral service.

Bishop D'Ercole recalled the heartbreaking story of Giulia, whose embrace apparently allowed her younger sister Giorgia to survive.

He said 15 hours after the quake struck Wednesday, he returned to the church in Pescara Del Tronto to recover its crucifix. Close by, firefighters were using their hands to dig out the two sisters.

"The older one, Giulia, was sprawled over the smaller one, Giorgia. Giulia, dead, Giorgia, alive. They were in an embrace," D'Ercole said.

Giulia was among those buried Saturday, while her younger sister had her fourth birthday at a hospital, trying to recover from the traumatizing ordeal.

Andrew Medichini / AP

Relatives mourn next to a coffin during the service.

As all of Italy observed a day of national mourning, with flags at half-staff, Bishop D'Ercole urged residents to rebuild their communities.

"Don't be afraid to cry out your suffering — I have seen a lot of this — but please do not lose courage," D'Ercole said in his homily. "Only together can we rebuild our houses and our churches. Together, above all, we will be able to restore life to our communities."

ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP - Getty Images

Relatives mourn over a coffin of one of the earthquake victims prior to the start of the funeral.

"It is a great tragedy. There are no words to describe it," said Gina Razzetti, a resident at the funeral. "Each one of us has our pain inside. We are thinking about the families who lost relatives, who lost their homes, who lost everything."

Gregorio Borgia / AP

Relatives mourn near coffins of some of the earthquake victims.

The magnitude 6.2 quake struck at 3:36 a.m. Wednesday and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, killing at least 291 people and injuring nearly 400. Nobody has been found alive in the ruins since Wednesday, and hopes have nearly vanished of finding any more survivors.

Andrew Medichini / AP

People attend the funeral service.

President Sergio Mattarella and Premier Matteo Renzi joined grieving family members, stopping to speak to some of them. When the caskets were brought out of the gym, the mourners applauded, a traditional Italian way of honoring people who die in tragedy.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP - Getty Images

Two girls embrace each other as they wait for the start of the funeral.

"The melancholy grabs on to your heart. You feel a sense of weakness, of depression," said Fiore Ciotto, a resident of Ascoli Piceno who attended the funeral. "An event like this weakens you physically and mentally."

Cristiano Chiodi / ANSA via AP