Report. Inside a sewer tank, they breathed in hydrogen sulfide, a gas created by the fermentation of organic residues. Unions have called a strike.

Suffocated by gas, five workers died in Palermo

Three workers were found in the sewer tank, submerged in the sludge. The lifeless bodies of two others were on a nearby concrete slab. A sixth worker managed to climb up to the surface, but is now in a coma at Palermo Hospital. A nauseating smell hung in the air, which could be felt from 40 meters away. Yet another tragedy at work.

It all happened in Casteldaccia, a small town 25 kilometers from Palermo. The Termini Imerese Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation. The results of an autopsy on the bodies are expected, but there seems to be no doubt: the five workers died of gas poisoning. In that confined space, they breathed in hydrogen sulfide, a gas created by the fermentation of organic residues.

“It was 10 times higher than the allowed limit,” said Girolamo Bentivoglio Fiandre, provincial commander of the fire department who coordinated the four teams that took part in the rescue attempt.

When divers entered the underground tank filled with 80-centimeter-deep sludge, they found the bodies of three workers; the other two were lying a few meters above.

“The emergency health workers tried to resuscitate them, but to no avail,” said fire inspector Francesco Cruciata, who was on the front line of operations to recover the bodies.

Reportedly, none of the workers were wearing masks and protective equipment, as they were required by law.

The victims are Epifanio Alsazia, 71, of Partinico, co-owner of Quadrifoglio Group SRL, which had won the contract from AMAP, the Palermo-based company, for maintenance work on the sewer tank; Giuseppe Miraglia, 47, originally from San Cipirrello (Palermo); Roberto Raneri, 51, of Alcamo (Trapani); Ignazio Giordano, 59; and Giuseppe La Barbera, 26, a temporary worker at AMAP, the office that contracted the works. A sixth worker, Domenico Viola, 62, is in serious condition at the Palermo Hospital.

Three other workers narrowly escaped tragedy by not descending into the tunnel full of deadly gas: Giovanni D’Aleo, 44, Giuseppe Scavuzzo, 39, and Paolo Sciortino, 35, were found in a state of shock and were all taken to Termini Imerese hospital as a precaution.

According to firefighters’ reconstruction, it all started with the first three workers lifting a manhole cover along State Road 113, which connects Casteldaccia to Palermo (a road barely a dozen meters wide with single-family homes on either side) and descending into the sewer tank. But right after taking the first few steps, still holding the pump, they lost consciousness. Not hearing them anymore, two other coworkers climbed down on the concrete platform to see what was happening but also fell into the trap: the hydrogen sulfide rendered them unconscious immediately.

The sixth worker, who was outside, rushed to try to rescue them: right after inhaling the deadly gas, he managed to climb to the surface; he is now in a coma. Among the victims is the young temporary worker who heard the screams of his colleagues and rushed in. He didn’t make it.

“Yet another unacceptable workplace tragedy must be a strong argument for the need for a common effort that must involve social forces, entrepreneurs and institutions,” said President Mattarella from New York.

Firefighters responded after a 112 call and arrived at 1:48 p.m., reaching Casteldaccia after about 15 minutes. But a worker who was doing yard work at the Duca di Salaparuta winery, located a few meters away, claims to have heard the screams around noon. That would leave a gap of 1 hour and 48 minutes between the time given by the witness and the 112 call. The Termini Imerese Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the sequence of events, also through analyzing the testimonies of the four survivors of the tragedy. Firefighters have ruled out the possibility of structural failure of the concrete structure.

After seeing some of the bodies, Nuccia Albano, a labor councilor in Sicily with long experience as a forensic scientist, had no doubts: “I saw their faces, the color reminded me of gas poisoning.”

A big question mark remains: why would workers who were thought to be experienced have climbed down without protective equipment? “This is absurd. The smell was so strong that it’s incomprehensible why they didn’t protect themselves,” commented AMAP president Alessandro Di Martino. It is unclear whether the workers had the necessary and legally-mandated safety training. This is one of the elements investigators are looking into.

Most harrowing was the grief of their loved ones. As she passed the protective tape set up to isolate the area, a woman looked to her right and froze. A car was parked, clear of the curb: an Alfa Romeo Stelvio. “Dad’s car,” she cried in despair. CGIL, CISL and UIL have called a 4-hour general strike for Tuesday in the province of Palermo and an 8-hour strike for construction workers.

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