In ordinary times it would be the most bucolic of drives to Onna, spectacular snow-capped mountains standing guard over a verdant valley floor, the first white blossoms unfurling their petals on the fruit trees. Only yesterday, the quiet country roads were choked with fire engines, bulldozers, cranes and trucks – all on their way to the village that is no more.
Onna was the worst affected of the many Abruzzo hamlets battered by Monday's killer quake. An estimated 40 of the confirmed 207 dead came from here, buried beneath the collapsed remains of old stone houses that used to make up the village. Any survivors had been pulled out straight away by friends and relatives. By the time rescue workers arrived several hours later, there were only bodies to retrieve. And yesterday they had called off even that search. The heavy machinery was moving in to shift the mountains of debris.
"It's a miracle we're alive," 70-year-old Adriano Bettucci declared. "This was a town where everybody knew each other, we all took trips to the countryside and we often cooked in the square together. Now what?" He and his wife, Dora, had had a narrow escape, saved by the headboard of their bed that broke the fall of a toppling wardrobe, which otherwise would have killed them as they slept. Mr Bettucci's family had survived intact, but he recounted the stories of the dead he knew – and there were many.
The quake killed more than one in 10 of the village's residents, among them Fabio DeFelice. The 18-year-old often spent the night at the home of his ageing grandmother, wanting to keep her company. He was there when the earth shook ferociously for those crucial 20 seconds, and died alongside his nonna. His parents survived back at the main family home and were struggling to come to terms with the fact that their son's generous spirit had ultimately sealed his fate.
Along Onna's main street – Via Alfieri – every building was missing at least a roof and in many cases, the upper floors and facade. One large apartment building had been reduced to a metres-high pile of corrugated iron, bricks and wires, with traces of home – like scattered green sofa cushions – peeping out of the rubble.
One of the only village buildings left standing completely intact was the yellow Catholic kindergarten. Sister Maria Lilia, one of the three elderly nuns that run it, was mourning the loss of two young pupils – three-year-old Lorenzo and four-year-old Alessandro, "both lively, smart and lovely boys who loved drawing and playing football in the playground". Alessandro had died alongside his father; his mother, who had recently had a bone-marrow transplant, was in hospital in a coma, unaware of her double loss.
On the edge of town, in a field where horses used to graze, the scene was part car park, part camp-site. With aftershocks continuing to pummel the village, residents had driven their vehicles here away from the dangers of falling masonry. They had spent their first homeless night in their cars, trying to shut out the cold, quell their fears, and sleep.
Scared, tired, in shock and in mourning, many were not in the mood to talk. Some residents wandered around in a daze in their pyjamas; others were comforting distraught friends and neighbours. One man could be heard sobbing into his mobile phone: "Mamma is dead, uncle, Mamma is dead. The village is one big slaughterhouse."
Giada Pezzopane, 14, was sitting in the field, her back to the crumpled village. Her best friends – Suzanna and Maria-Paola – had been killed with their entire families. "They didn't deserve to die," she said, tears running down her face. There had been tremors since December, she said, but "everyone always told us not to worry about them".
"When the strong one came, we ran outside but we couldn't see anything. We found that my family was OK, but not my friends. Onna used to be a beautiful place to live, now what will we do?"
It was a question many of the shell-shocked villagers were asking, as they faced up to the fact that not only is most of the town destroyed, but those few buildings that did stay standing will probably have to be razed to the ground.
Some people had ventured back to their homes to retrieve treasured belongings. Outside one house, firemen were handing over some framed baby portraits they had managed to salvage to a woman in a pink quilted jacket. Next came a bag of clothes, a small leather chest and a jewellery box.
But by mid-morning such salvage operations had been banned. The aftershocks were coming in quick succession and fears were growing that already tottering buildings could collapse even further. Military personnel blocked off access to the village and residents retreated to the paddock.
By then, tents were being erected and pasta served from a camp kitchen, and residents prepared to spend their second night away from their homes. "Please don't forget us, please," one woman sobbed. "Everyone comes to see in the beginning but then they forget."