When he saw the bruised legs of 10-year-old Angelo, physician Silvano Tommaso knew he had to move quickly if the elementary school student was to walk again.
Angelo was the last child pulled alive from the rubble of the schoolhouse in the neighboring town of San Giuliano di Puglia that was destroyed Thursday by an earthquake in which 26 children and three adults died.
"We had no choice but to operate immediately," said Tommaso, who performed three hours of complicated surgery that included replenishing the boy's arteries and readjusting broken bones. After approximately 15 hours trapped underneath heavy stones in cold weather, Angelo arrived at the hospital on a stretcher, shivering and with broken legs that were "as black as death," according to the doctor.
"Now there's some hope that he'll walk again," said Tommaso, who is responsible for the surgery ward at Campobasso's Cardarelli Hospital, where several earthquake victims are being treated. "But he's still in serious condition."
Eighteen miles southwest of San Giuliano di Puglia, Campobasso is one of the largest towns in the central Molise region and is involved in coordinating rescue efforts and emergency services after the earthquake, which registered magnitude 5.4.
Funerals for the earthquake victims will be held Sunday and Italy's president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, is expected to attend. All of the children will be buried in white coffins, as is customary in Italy. "Locating one white casket after another wasn't easy," said a spokesman for the local civil protection service. "Twenty-six is too high a number for small caskets."
Nerves remained on edge throughout the Molise region today as tremors of magnitude 3.7 and 3.8 shook buildings in the area surrounding Campobasso and San Giuliano di Puglia. As a precaution, the administrative offices of the province of Campobasso have been transferred to several mini-campers in nearby parking lots. Schools will be closed for a week.
Approximately 5,500 residents were evacuated to nearby campgrounds after rescue workers declared their cracked and crumbling homes too precarious. Tents with sleeping bags and provisions have been arranged for nearly 2,800 people.
Tonino Gentile, 51, a volunteer emergency worker, was transferred to Campobasso from Mount Etna, where he was stationed after the Sicilian volcano erupted a week ago. Early today, Gentile walked past San Giuliano di Puglia's gymnasium, which has been transformed into a morgue.
"The vision of the rigid bodies of those 26 children lying exactly in the contorted ways in which they were found in the rubble is one of those scenes I wish I could forget," he said.
At the heart of the sorrow and anger of Thursday's tragedy lies the haunting question of why the schoolhouse was the only building in the entire village to collapse.
Prosecutors arrived in the region today to begin investigations that could lead to charges of negligence or manslaughter. They said they did not have information to hold anyone responsible, and that no one in particular was under investigation.
"We have to ascertain if there is possible responsibility," said Andrea Cataldi Tassone, a prosecutor. "We must acquire documentation and then make a technical verification of the case."
Built in 1953, the schoolhouse had several renovations, including the construction of heavy anti-seismic pillars to reinforce a second story added in recent years, local police officials said.
A village of about 1,195 people, San Giuliano di Puglia was a tight-knit community, according to residents now at the hospital in Campobasso.
"All of us may as well be relatives after what we've been through in the last 48 hours," said Maria, now in stable condition despite her bruised back, who declined to give her surname.
She was trapped with her mother in a car on a side street of San Giuliano di Puglia when the earthquake struck and rocks tumbled from nearby houses through the windshield. When rescued by firefighters, Maria heard voices around her screaming, "Over there -- save the children! Run, run, run!" She recalled hearing shrieks from people nearby as they pointed toward the schoolhouse just 150 yards from her car.
"Two of my friends had children in that school," Maria, a 29-year-old law student, said through tears as she looked at her mother lying next to her with a broken neck. "But now only one of them can still feel her child's heartbeat."