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Collapsed Italian building yielding no survivors

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FOGGIA, Italy -- Search crews pulled body after body out of the dust of a flattened apartment block in southern Italy today, the screams and tears of an anguished family marking each find.

The death toll rose to 31 at midday. Earlier, a gauze-masked man among the rescue workers found the body of a female relative. The shrieks of another waiting female relative drowned out his sobs.At least one of the corpses retrieved was blackened by flames, burned by a fire burning out of sight in an underground garage.

Dozens more still were missing among the 70 to 75 believed to have been in the six-story apartment building when it fell Thursday morning.

The disaster -- the worst in a series of deadly building collapses in Italy -- occurred in Foggia. The city 70 miles north of Naples has 150,000 residents, many laborers and farmers.

Only 17 people are known to have survived, all but one of whom -- a 25-year-old man pulled out at dark Thursday -- were found or escaped within five hours of the collapse.

"You still hope. But there's been nothing," said Red Cross volunteer Vincenzo Conzo, whose only recovery work had been to pull the corpse of a young woman from her bed.

The death toll early Friday passed that of what had been Italy's deadliest building collapse of the decade -- a 1994 disaster at a home for the elderly that killed 28. Last December, a five-story apartment building collapsed in Rome, killing 27.

In Foggia, a plume of smoke rose amid the cloud of powdered plaster, brick and concrete, churned up by bulldozers plowing through the shattered slabs. Firefighters said the flames, sparked by an unknown cause, were feeding off tires and other debris in the garage.

The fire further lessened hope of finding anyone alive.

Three teenage boys who skipped school Thursday to await news of their 18-year-old former classmate got the word before dawn today: She was dead.

Other families sat in the lobbies of neighboring apartment buildings, as plain and as tidy as the one that collapsed. Waiting, they cried in the privacy of stairwells.

"I beg you, tell us as soon as you find them," one woman implored, seeking news, however devastating, of her son and daughter-in-law, 26-year-olds expecting their first baby.

While crews searched for victims of the disaster, investigators searched for its cause, seizing all documents related to the destruction.

Neighborhood residents, local officials, seismologists and engineers all offered theories on the disaster. The blame ranged from cheap concrete in construction to a sudden settling of the sandy soil beneath the six-story building, to renovation work on the garage that undermined the strength of the foundation.

Whatever the cause, Italy's national statistics bureau said, 3.5 million houses nationwide are at risk of similar collapse. Age has weakened some, and cut-rate building during the south's construction boom means some structures were weak to begin with.

"There's no monitoring," said Giuseppe Roma, director of the statistics bureau. "To put it in a word, the territory is out of control."

In Rome, politicians urged Parliament to push through proposed legislation that would make buildings subject to periodic inspections.

"It is absurd that cars must undergo periodic checkups while buildings don't," said Cristina Matranga, a lawmaker for the opposition Forza Italia.