Sicilian Blazes Put Science to the Test
Mon Apr 5, 2004 10:38 AM ET
By Shasta Darlington
CANNETO DI CARONIA, Sicily (Reuters) - The gate at the entrance to this tiny Sicilian village has come off its hinges and swings in the wind as cats wander into homes abandoned after a series of mystery fires.
A series of spontaneous fires started in mid-January in the town of Canneto di Caronia in about 20 houses. After a brief respite last month, the almost daily fires have flared up again -- even though electricity to the village was cut off.
An endless flow of scientists, engineers, police and even a few self-styled "ghostbusters" have descended on the town searching for clues to the recent spontaneous combustion of everything from fuse boxes to microwave ovens to a car.
The blazes, originally blamed on the devil, have not hurt anyone.
"We're working in the dark. We don't have a single lead so far," said Pedro Spinnato, mayor of the trio of Caronia towns.
"Every time some new scientist comes to town, they arrive thinking the whole thing has been invented or that they're going to solve the mystery in two minutes. They've all been wrong."
ELECTRICIANS AND EXORCISTS
The 39 inhabitants of the town halfway between Palermo and Messina were evacuated after the regional government declared a state of emergency in Canneto, which occupies a single street nestled between a railway line and the sea.
But after weeks of sleeping in a nearby hotel and houses rented for them by the government, they're getting desperate.
"I've seen an air conditioner burst into flames and burn down in 30 seconds. These are not normal events, but I think we're going to have to start looking for a different kind of help," said Antonio Pezzino, whose house was first hit.
From the start, Gabriele Amorth, one of the Catholic Church's exorcists, suspected the devil was at work.
"I've seen things like this before," he told Il Messaggero daily. "Demons occupy a house and appear in electrical goods," he said, urging the parish priest to take action.
The local priest, Don Antonio Cipriani, decided together with residents to let scientists have a first go at the fires.
After a brief visit to Canneto di Caronia, the head of the Committee for the Control of Paranormal Claims has ruled out demons or poltergeists -- at least for the time being.
"The fact that the phenomenon occurs only when there are people present makes it hard to believe that it is a natural, or even supernatural phenomenon," the committee's Massimo Polidoro said. "But we don't exclude further investigation if things aren't eventually explained."
Nobody can say the experts aren't trying. Canneto looks increasingly like a set for the TV hit "The X-Files."
Two fire trucks and a police jeep sit at the entrance of Canneto on alert for the next blaze while a van with a large, rotating antennae on top measures the radio waves.
A host of three-legged instruments to monitor geomagnetic, meteorological, electromagnetic and electrostatic indicators sit in apartments and next to lemon trees in the gardens. Colored markings on the street indicate the presence of volcano experts.
Police ruled out a possible prankster or pyromaniac after they saw wires burst into flames.
The hypotheses now range from a build-up of electrical energy caused by grounding wires running off the railway to a rare "natural phenomenon" in which surges of electricity rise from the earth's core.
The fires have even consumed unplugged lamps and an entire apartment. Black scorch marks still scar the apartment walls.
Italy's big utility, Enel, cut off electricity to the town and hooked it up to a generator -- but that caught fire as well.
More recently cellular phones and cars have also been acting up, with lock and alarm systems being set off without any apparent reason.
The evacuated families of Canneto di Caronia who gather almost every night in the three-star hotel perched above their abandoned village are giving up hope.
"I just want to go home," said Rosi Cioffo, a shopkeeper and mother of two. "I don't know what's causing it and I don't care anymore -- even if it's the devil."
Her 9-year-old daughter, who is frightened every time a TV or bathroom fan switches on, may not agree.
Spinnato, the mayor, sounds just as desperate.
"Someone wrote to us saying the solution was to sacrifice a black goat and collect its blood. At some point, that's going to start looking like a good idea."