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Faith unshaken after mourners killed in Peru church collapse

  • Story Highlights
  • Church collapsed during quake while mourners gathered for a funeral Mass
  • Nuns gather, await word on two of their sisters
  • Bodies placed in Pisco's town center as residents try to identify loved ones
  • Man holds wake for his mother in the street
  • Next Article in World »
By Harris Whitbeck
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, CNN's Harris Whitbeck describes the destruction from Wednesday's earthquake in Peru.

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Local residents bury earthquake victims Friday in Pisco, Peru.

PISCO, Peru (CNN) -- Five elderly nuns huddled early Friday outside the ruins of a church that had stood for centuries, their dark shawls tightly wrapped around their shoulders.

The nuns were standing at the edge of the ruins of the San Clemente church in downtown Pisco, waiting for word on two of their sisters who were buried in the rubble.

The parish priest, a robust Spaniard in his 60s, accompanied the nuns. The group quietly observed rescue workers dig through mounds of stones and upturned tiles.

The priest said the church was more than 300 years old. He still couldn't understand how the entire roof collapsed on hundreds of worshippers who were attending a funeral Mass when Wednesday's 8.0-magnitude quake struck.

I couldn't understand how this man and these women of the cloth could remain so calm, their faith so apparently unshaken while they contemplated the ruins of the church and the loss of people so dear to them. I asked them about that faith.

"It's difficult times like this that it exists," the priest said.

The group spent hours waiting in the dark, cold night and into the morning never questioning -- simply accepting what was and never doubting that their church would some day be rebuilt.

The parish church says there could be 60 people buried under the rubble, including the entire church choir and 15 members of the immediate family of the person whose life was being celebrated during the funeral mass. Video Watch how the quake ruined lives »

Many are buried amid the rubble at the church's entrance. When the quake struck, those inside the church rushed to get out. That's when the roof came smashing down on top of them.

Rescue workers are now digging around the entrance of the church. On Thursday night, family members stood outside the church, watching and waiting. Every time a body would be pulled out, they would rush toward it to see if they could identify the remains.

About 100 bodies -- some from the church, others from elsewhere in the town -- were taken to the city square and laid there. The bodies were covered with shrouds. People walked among the bodies trying to identify loved ones, an eerie feeling amid the destruction.

Throughout the Peru town, people are living in the streets outside the rubble of what used to be their homes. Many use wood from their destroyed homes to try to stay warm at night; temperatures are in the 50s at night here. They're most fearful of aftershocks, and at least two jolted the region Friday morning. Photo See photos of quake-ravaged Peru »

One man I came across was in mourning outside his home. He lives across the street from a cemetery and owns a flower stall. He typically sells flowers to those going into the cemetery to place at gravestones. But not on this day.

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The man wept on a coffin. His house had collapsed during the quake, and his mother was killed. There in the street, in front of what was left of his house, he held a wake for his mother. Two little candles were lit. He didn't have flowers, even for his own mother. He was devastated.

At the foot of the coffin, children slept. They were neighborhood kids, wrapped in blankets, trying to get some sleep amid the chaos. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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