April 6, 2005
VATICAN CITY —
Overwhelmed Italian officials said they will cut off the line of pilgrims hoping to see Pope John Paul II's body at St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday evening as a massive line snaked down a wide boulevard, through ancient alleyways and onto a bridge.
People face a 24-hour wait as things stand, said Luca Spoletini, a spokesman for the Civil Defense department. Officials will block off the line starting at around 10 p.m. Wednesday, and maybe even earlier, he said.
"It's possible there are 1 million people out there," he said. "They are all concentrated outside St. Peter's ... We are all working to ensure maximum tranquility."
The department was flashing messages on highway panels and sending out text messages on cell phones to warn people of the closure, which will allow officials to clear the basilica on time and prepare it for Friday's funeral, he said.
Many people waited in line 12 hours overnight, wrapped in thick brown blankets handed out by civil defense authorities. When the sun came out, people shaded their eyes with baseball caps or umbrellas.
Red Cross medics assisted 500 people overnight, a spokeswoman said. Malteser Deutschland, a German-based Catholic relief agency, said its workers treated 100 pilgrims for heart problems and exhaustion.
Rainer Loeb, a doctor with the group, said he was concerned for children and elderly people who wanted to stay until Friday's funeral.
"Many pilgrims are at their physical limits already," he said.
Since Monday, when the body went on public view, the line has grown by the hour. By Wednesday noon, people were lined up on a bridge across the Tiber River. The crowd was mostly calm, but occasionally someone would try to push into the line, prompting angry shouts of "Get out!"
One group of women who flew in from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia ate breakfast on the steps of the church after a 12-hour wait.
"We came all the way from Sardinia; we could not give up," said Maria Ruia.
One couple, wrapped in a brown blanket to keep warm, said they also waited 12 hours. Massimo Martone, from Avellino in southern Italy, said he wished he had paid more attention to the pope when he was alive.
"Reading about him in the papers, I've been feeling so emotional," he said.
Dignitaries were allowed to skip the line, including the AS Roma soccer squad, which filed past the pope's body dressed in their dark team blazers early Wednesday, led by captain Francesco Totti.
The basilica was closed for cleaning from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., which contributed to the wait to see the pope, who died Saturday at the age of 84.
Many moved to the side of the line during the closure to rest on benches or lie down in sleeping bags. Throughout the night, Civil Defense officials handed out water and blankets.
Pietro Gati, a 20-year-old student from Florence, went to bed around 2 a.m. in a sleeping bag under the colonnades that surround St. Peter's.
"There were a lot of people out here," he said. "We slept well and it was really nice."
When the massive bronze doors of St. Peter's reopened, those in line burst into applause.
One local resident had set up an impromptu stall outside St. Peter's to sell photos of the pope to people leaving the basilica. Late into the night he peddled images at $4 each of John Paul smiling among a group of youngsters or imparting a Sunday blessing.
Crowds swelled Monday before John Paul's body was carried solemnly from the Vatican's Apostolic Palace into the basilica to go on public view.
John Paul will be laid to rest Friday in the grotto of St. Peter's, alongside popes of centuries past and near the traditional tomb of the first pope, St. Peter.
Some predict the number of pilgrims flowing into Rome may surpass the city's own 3 million residents.
Associated Press Writer Annalisa Grossi contributed to this report.