Pope in surprise visit to quake-hit Italian village
The Argentinian pontiff’s first point of call was a set of colourful pre-fabricated buildings serving as a makeshift school.
Amatrice’s school was destroyed in the quake despite having been expensively renovated to make it quake resistant a few years ago.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke tweeted pictures of the pope greeting youngsters and shaking hands with a visibly-moved middle-aged man.
The man lost his wife and two children in the disaster, according to the Vatican spokesman.
Another image showed Francis standing on his own in front of a pile of collapsed masonry, silently praying.
Accompanied by Domenico Pompili, the bishop of Rieti, Francis was also due to visit the “red zone” area of the devastated town which remains closed to the public for fear of fresh movement of masonry which could pose a risk of injury or worse.
Francis had confirmed his intention to visit the quake-hit area on his flight home from Georgia and Azerbaijan on Sunday, but had not divulged when he intended to go.
He said he wanted to make his visit “privately, alone, as a priest, a bishop, a pope. But alone,” in order to be “near the people.”
The government has estimated the cost of the damage done to the area hit by the quake at four billion euros ($4.5 billion) and has vowed to rebuild the worst-affected communities where they were, having ruled out any relocations.
– Amatrice worst hit –
Around 1,800 people remain housed in temporary accommodation — either tented villages or hotels in the surrounding area, according to the latest update issued last week.
Francis’s statement on Sunday was a reaffirmation of a pledge he made to worshippers on August 28, four days after the disaster, to visit the area hit by the 6.0 to 6.2 magnitude quake.
“As soon as possible, I hope to come and see you, to bring you the comfort of faith, the tenderness of a father and a brother,” he said in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City.
The earthquake, which was felt in Rome, 150 kilometres (93 miles) from the epicentre near Amatrice, killed 297 people and injured hundreds more.
Around two thirds of the deaths occurred in Amatrice, a beauty spot and popular tourist destination which was packed with holiday-makers when the quake struck at the height of the summer season.
The quake struck an area only 50 kilometres from the city of L’Aquila, which was hit by a 2009 earthquake in which more than 300 people perished.