At the New York Hall of Science, a few ham radio operators are trying to answer a simple, desperate question -- "Are they alive?"

That is what thousands of Italian-Americans want to know about relatives in southern Italy, where thousands died in a major earthquake.

"It's pitiful," said Jean Cicchetti, a bilingual phone operator at the makeshift emergency communications center in the borough of Queens.

"A woman just called to ask about family in Sant' de Lombardi," she said. "There is nothing I can tell her." Sant' Angelo is one of eight areas so devastated that efforts to reach people are futile.

The New York ham radio operators take telephone calls and contact Italian ham operators, asking them to telephone Italians in the earthquake area and relay news to the United States.

The ham radio relay has drawbacks, but with transtlantic telephone lines busy, it is one way Italian-Americans -- New York City's largest ethnic group -- can seek information about their relatives. Similar efforts, by more conventional means, are under way by several orgnaizations, including the Italian consulate.

The 24-hour-a-day ham service has fielded about 5,000 requests, and answered some 2,000 of the queries, according to ham operator Frank Krupp.

As the ham operators sought to reassure Italian-Americans of their relatives' safety, Italian-Americans across the nation were tapping their resources to produce cash, clothing and marketable jewelry to aid the quake's survivors -- and coffins to bury the dead.

Thousands gathered today at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan to pray and take up collections for a relief fund that has accumulated thousands of dollars and tons of clothing.

Civic Opera patrons in Dallas donated $1,500 during a 15-minute passing of the hat at intermission of the American premiere of the Antonio Vivaldi opera, "Orlando Furioso."

In Philadelphia, Nicholas Troilo, leading a four-state fund-raising drive, said he has received gold jewelry, rosary beads and offers of two "C130 military cargo planes along with nearly $5,000 in checks. Troilo said he has not been able to receive Washington clearance for the C130s offer, made by Willow Grove Naval Air Station in suburban Philadelphia.

Italian-American funeral directors in the New York area, incensed at reports of black marketeering of caskets, prepared to ship between 500 and 1,000 coffins to Italy. "Why should we have black marketeering at a time like this?" said Pat Faranga, director of a Bronx funeral home.