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Reportage. A railway worker who spoke out about the company’s culpability in 32 deaths has been fired, but he says he would do it again.

Remembering Viareggio, the massacre on the rails

The little Viareggio station is deserted in the early afternoon. On the sunny platforms, the occasional traveler waits, seated on the marble white benches, with an air of desolation of provincial train stations. The tangle of cables and wires high above, and the tracks on the ground, run to the horizon, climbing toward the Apuan Alps, those mountains that inspired Fosco Maraini to think about the creation of the world.

There, I meet with Riccardo Antonini, the railroad worker fired because he offered free consulting services to the families of the 32 victims of the massacre that occurred in June 29, 2009. That day, the freight train 50325 derailed on the route between Trecate and Gricignano. The train was servicing Aversana Petroli, an oil company owned by the Cosentino family. It carried 14 tanker cars containing LPG that were clanking on the rails at a speed of 90 kilometers per hour. A tanker dropped from the first cargo wagon and caught fire.

Antonini is tall and slender, with silvery hair and beard, and he wears a pair of dark sunglasses. He shows me the 5b railroad switch, the diverging track on the railroad switch, where the train derailed. Looking at its front, protected by a metal cage, the imposing rusty tank looks like a sleeping whale. “After four minutes, the LPG burned out and the fire broke out there,” he says. He points out a group of small houses with plaster in pastel colors on the left of the railways, as well as a gray concrete wall decorated with murals that was built after the incident, in spite of the fact that local citizens had repeatedly asked for it to protect their houses. A petition had been submitted in 2001.

He keeps talking as he shows me the railways: “As you can see, there the locomotive came undocked, the first tank capsized, then the fires and explosions moved that way. All the houses were surrounded by flames. Luckily, after a long and difficult labor dispute we had managed to keep security staff at night, otherwise there would be have been more deaths.” In fact, after the fire, the stationmaster was able to manually lock regional and intercity trains, preventing the two convoys from ending up in flames.

At this station in the suburbs, at 23:48 that night, hell broke loose when the boiler blew up. Columns of fire invaded five houses and torched parked cars. The flames quickly spread on the asphalt and scrambled wildly on the facades of buildings. Even the wooden sleepers burned, as well as the power and transmission cables, and even the abandoned brush along the railway. Images taken from a helicopter the following day are frightening, like a war zone after a bombing. Torn roofs and filthy walls, interiors gutted and blackened by the smoke, indistinct still smoking ashes along the tracks and between what remained of the buildings.

Like all tragedies, this is also a story of what was saved. A brave man, Rolando Pellegrini, carried his elderly wife, who recently had surgery on her legs, and with the strength of desperation, he dragged her through a side door before the building collapsed. Some manage to escape, like Adriana Cosci and her husband Paolo Crivello, who heard the train suddenly derailing and managed to escape to the roof. One of the victims was a woman, engulfed in flames, who ran down the street shrieking as she tried to tear her clothes off; another victim, a man, was bludgeoned to the ground by a large piece of metal. A woman screamed for help on the phone: “There is a gentleman who isn’t moving. He is lying in the street. There is fire everywhere, please send someone.” Another desperate voice yelled to the 118 dispatcher that night: “A train exploded at the station.” A building collapsed and crumbled with 18 people inside.

Among the dead on Via Ponchielli was a young Moroccan named Hamza Ayad. He was 16 years old. He had managed to survive in another house where he freed himself from the rubble, but he wanted to go back, wandering through the flames and thick smoke, to rescue his 3-year-old sister Iman. He didn’t make it. The gas choked him, and he fainted before he could find her. They both died, along with their parents Mohammed and Aziza, 46 and 51 years old respectively.

The elderly Angela Monelli suffered a heart attack from fright, while the 21-year-old Emanuela Menichetti happened to be in the home of her friend and work colleague Sara Orsi. They were playing cards on the bed when they were swept away by the flames. At 3 a.m., her parents received a telephone call from the Cisanello Pisa hospital. She told them: “I’m fine, I am not hurt.” But she had suffered burns on 98 percent of her body. She went into a coma because of an infection, and died after 42 days of agony.

The last victim was Elisabeth Silva Teran Guadalupe, 36 years old and originally from Ecuador. She survived until Dec. 22, six months after the tragedy. She died when she was already thinking she would make it.

Marco Piagentini, president of an association of victims’ relatives called “The world that I would like,” is also a survivor. But he has suffered 60 cosmetic surgeries, and he lost his wife and two small children, 2 and 4 years old; the former was burned alive inside his car while he was trying to keep him safe, and the other was burned while his mother held him in her arms. Their third child remained trapped for hours under the rubble, protected by a mattress, but managed to escape the tragedy.

“Think about this: A man riding a motorbike on the other side of the road died because of a red traffic light,” a still saddened Antonini says as we stroll along the platform. Rosario Campo was a 42-year-old carpenter. He was engulfed in flames and died charred by a twist of fate.

“We have always called this incident a massacre. It was a labor accident which turned into a train wreck and caused the massacre of 32 victims,” explains the railroad worker. Because he joined the cause of the victims free of charge as a consultant, he lost his job in November 2011.

It all started on June 30, two years ago, the day after the massacre, when right at the station, he listened to the CEO of the Ferrovie dell Stato group Mauro Moretti tell an officer: “From now on, we have to check everything coming from abroad,” implying that before the wreck, this was not done. A daily paper broke the news. While in a meeting at the headquarters of the Tuscany Region in Florence, the manager said about the rebel railroad worker: “I will fire that one sooner or later.”

But the struggle continues during the inquiry phase, when Antonini quarreled with the lawyers of the business leader who ultimately became CEO of Finmeccanica. “I said that it was caused by lack of maintenance, that safety was missing.” Outside the metal cage, 300 angry people were yelling, throwing objects, and fought against the net. According to him, it was the result of corporate strategic decisions that over 25 years, downsized the company from 224,000 workers to 68,000 units. This downsizing started when Mario Schimberni, then the head of FS, introduced the concept of “relative safety.”

“Instead, the lawyers of FS classified the massacre of Viareggio as a ‘Black Swan’ event, an event that can only be predicted in retrospect, you know,” he says indignantly while we move on to the platform of the second track. ”After I received the warning due to conflict of interest, to which I have not complied, I was suspended for 10 days, then I was fired.” His layoff was confirmed by the Supreme Court two weeks ago.

But even now, he did not bat an eye. “I am a political activist. I am a child of partisans. When the families of the victims told me that I was risking too much, that it was not fair, I answered that a dismissal in face of the 32 victims should make us smile. I wish there have been 32 layoffs instead.”

To Moretti, who had contemptuously said that the incident was just “an unfortunate incident,” inhumanly minimizing the tragedy, he had sent an ironic word that his layoff was regrettable, but solvable. “I turned the situation around,” he says, now satisfied.

Later, we reach Via Ponchielli, where the massacre took place. Now the small narrow houses have all been rebuilt a few hundred meters away.

In front, where the house stood before, there is a lush green lawn, where 32 trees were planted. At the center, there is a stone in white Carrara marble engraved with all the names of the innocent victims: 23 Italians, seven Moroccans, two Ecuadorians and a Romanian. A little further there is the ‘cottage of remembrance,’ dedicated to two bikers with funny nicknames, Pulce and Scarburato, who died in the fire. This secular shrine contains objects belonging to the victims: soft toys and dolls, photos, an old bakelite telephone deformed by the fire, some funeral posters, many newspaper articles.

The station has been the site of struggle and remembrance, a symbolic place and a theater of protest. It was occupied when Moretti became CEO of Finmeccanica in 2014, despite the heavy charges and an ongoing process. “We came here and we stopped an intercity train. The [agents] wanted to block us, but I said, ‘You don’t swing your clubs, we are going on the tracks.’” The actor Paolo Rossi was on that train. He got off and made a short speech in solidarity with the protesters, then he boarded again. And every 29th of the month, two minutes before midnight, they go back there “in the rain or snow, cold or hot, we come here,” he says, moved. “And the last train that runs from Lucca whistles as a sign of solidarity.”

Before he died, the film director Mario Monicelli, who was fond of and beloved by the city, wrote a touching letter to the relatives of the victims: “The country is in shambles, drifting, and the massacre of Viareggio well expresses the decline of Italy. Those 32 dead are there to show us the negligence, the arrogance of those who govern. I still wonder how it is possible to allow a train carrying explosive materials to pass by at that speed without any warning, without precautions, without caring for the people.”

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