Short story writer, novelist and playwright Angelo Ferracuti’s latest book deals with the “Ravenna tragedy”, a 1987 industrial accident in which 13 shipyard workers died in this port city in north-eastern Italy. We asked him to talk about his unique approach to creating this memorial work and what the local community thought about his book, twenty-five years after the events.

My reporting career spans years. I go about it the only way you can for these first-hand personal stories from those involved, at least for someone like me. I put so much of myself in it, senses tingling and nerves alert, sometimes just wandering around with no specific aim trying to get a sense of the scene, what makes it tick, becoming part of the action. More than with fiction, this method of writing stories from real life calls for a radical change not only in narrative subject matter, the form that you choose each time, but also the writer’s own deep feelings and beliefs.

The places where some stories have happened themselves already form a kind of narrative, an explanation; they fuel questions and contradictions, especially because of their greater complexity in terms of relations that have developed over centuries in culture, in all the laid-down layers of humankind past and present which makes us all what we are.

Cities big and small, towns, mountain villages, seaside resorts, all these things that conjure up a geographical place are crucial to the story we have to tell, they are the binder of the narrative, but also the setting in which it is contained, the scene of the action, where past and present come together and the future can be glimpsed.

In short, Ravenna was a real eye-opener for me. I had only visited it once on holiday with my family to see the mosaics, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica of San Vitale and Dante’s tomb. Guidebook in hand, we wandered the maze of streets in the historic centre, then off to visit the mausoleum of Emperor Theodoric and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

But my memories of it were quite superficial; apart from its ancient history, I knew nothing about the place. I didn’t know, for example, and was amazed to learn that Ravenna is Italy’s second biggest city after Rome in terms of geographical size, spreading over 653 sq km. It is a maritime city, and yet the sea is out of sight; it’s one of Italy’s biggest ports, a main port of call on the Adriatic, but mainly a "land" city, i.e., agricultural. The centre lies 8 km from the Adriatic, which is the length of the Candiano canal which connects city to sea. So, the first thing that struck me was thisveryclearseparationbetweentownanddocks, land and sea, between the ideal city and the real town – shrouded and sullied by work.

Back to Ravenna

I went back to Ravenna in 2007 to report on the shipyard tragedy that twenty years earlier on 13 March 1987 had claimed the lives of thirteen workers trapped in the holds of the Elisabetta Montanari LPG (liquid petroleum gas) carrier. They were employed to clean out the holds in the worst of conditions, crawling like rats, often in the dark. They lost their lives when a fire broke out on the fuel residue coated floor of the LPG tanks during a welding repair job causing toxic gases like carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide to form, but most of all because five contractors were working at the same time on the ship unbeknown to one another, and safety rules were breached to the point where there was not even a fire extinguisher which would have been enough to quench the flames.

These workers died because of negligence by the contractor and owner of Mecnavi, Enzo Arienti, because of the unscrupulous use of subcontracting, the gangmaster system, and illegal working (ten of the eleven workers were undeclared labour, only one was officially employed by the company managing the work), and a brutal capitalist mentality that puts profit before people’s lives: a mentality which was then prevalent and would later be dubbed neo-liberalism. For the Ravenna firm systematically used the gangmaster system that allowed it abdicate all responsibility, and use cheap day labour by outsourcing different jobs to outside contractors so as to cut costs and delivery times, having them work unbeknown to one another.

My article was published in the CGIL’s Rassegna sindacale weekly which was bringing out a special Labour Day issue for 1 May, as well as in Diario, a magazine I was doing some work with at the time, using pictures taken by Mario Dondero, the legendary photographer I had worked with on several occasions and who for me is "the master".

I think I only stayed there three days, working under time pressure like any journalist, trying to get my head around the basic essentials of this story from the past without managing to connect it to the present. But I did have an opportunity to visit the dock where the tragedy happened so many years ago and talk to some of those involved, like Burbassi, the fireman in charge of operations to recover the bodies; Sartoris, an engineer now and a young employee of Mecnavi then; and the son of one of the dead workers, Massimo Padua, just a child when his father died. Thirteen workers died like rats, in the words of Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, injuring themselves in the desperate bid to escape, but knowing for five to ten minutes – an eternity in such conditions – that they were dying of asphyxiation.

Only connect

Unlike writers, journalists lack the leisure to be discursive – they have to cut straight to the facts, the news – that’s their job. But as writers and storytellers, we do a different, slower job – what Mario Dondero calls "connecting" – going back to the scene time and again, trying to zero in on the subject of our story and keeping the flame that feeds the rage to write burning.

It happened later on that the publisher Einaudi asked me to write a book more or less based around the stories of the various work-related deaths I had reported on over the years, mainly for il Manifesto. First thoughts were that I might look at the ThyssenKrupp case in which seven workers died in a fire on 6 December 2007.

Then I thought about the Ravenna tragedy, that I might be able to get a better handle on for it happening in a typical provincial town in central Italy, not so different from Fermo where I live. That’s how I came to write Il costo della vita (The cost of life) and how I went back to Ravenna in spring 2012.

The biggest post-war industrial tragedy after the 1954 Ribolla brown coal mine disaster in which 43 workers died happened where nobody expected it: not in a depressed area of Southern Italy, but in the "red" Romagna – a labour heartland where the Italian Communist Party was still a force – there, where welfare, democracy and a social security system the envy of Europe had been created; a place where the CGIL left-wing trade union has close to 100 000 members. In short, somewhere workers’ oversight should see that the rules were followed. So I thought, if that could happen in Ravenna, it must be symptomatic of something else going deeper than this unique and shocking story.

Only after a year’s work, numerous trips, getting accepted by a whole community, interviewing fire-fighters, doctors, ambulance support workers, nurses, local news reporters, trade unionists, the relatives of victims and surviving workers did I reach the conclusion that what had happened in this port had sent a tremor through the world of work that might spell the end of the "social contract" which had been the foundation of our democracy ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Two years earlier, the protest march by 40 000 Fiat white-collar staff after the 35 day strike had ended in a dramatic defeat for the union. Shortly after, the fall of the Berlin Wall had led to the decline of socialism across the world, and with it many of the gains made by the 20th century labour movement.

Wastelands and tombs

I have now been on a seven-month book tour up and down Italy, and as often as not my talks to the public turn into a full-scale discussion meeting with speeches from workers laid off by failing companies, others with serious illnesses. There is always one victim of workplace violence, a young casualised worker who has changed jobs 20 times in three years, on the dole, with a nervy restlessness and gleaming eyes, whose body already betrays his hopelessness fuelled by loneliness and defeated by work.

In my travels around Italy, all I saw were wastelands, abandoned firms like Burgo in Mantua, occupied for a year, or Fincantieri in Ancona, whose workers have gone through very hard times; I travelled through a Sardinia, battered by brutal industrialization; the 20th century graveyard of Carbonia, a symbol of death by decommissioning, to mention only a few of the many industrial sites that are derelict, in crisis, or dragging the community down.

It mirrors what has become of a European country like Italy in an era of neo-liberalism, the tangible result of unbridled capitalism where the links between politics, business and organized crime are the norm. But it is also the product of uncontrolled relocations undertaken by the many "flies of capital", a capital which in the words of novelist Paolo Volponi "went through one collapse and crisis after another because that’s how it is – greedy, gluttonous, with eyes much bigger than its belly so that afterwards it suffers and obviously always makes others pay for its ills".

My book is a narrative reportage, a social novel as it were: a work of investigation and writing that reconstructs through the tale it tells a story of the past that speaks to the present, especially at a time of deep crisis when a further rolling back of rights could push today’s world of work closer to the Chinese model, losing its last marks of civilization. But it does not set out to be a memorial as I first conceived it because I am reconnecting the history of yesterday to that of today: work accidents are still happening in the port of Ravenna notwithstanding the vow at the time that "never again" should it happen; people are still dying, and workers’ conditions have got worse, exploitation and illegal work have shot up.

In Ravenna as elsewhere, in the shipyards, on farms, not to mention building sites and factories, where dismantling often kills, as at ThyssenKrupp, Isochimica in Avellino where asbestos was being worked, or that sooty cathedral of Italian-style capitalism, the Ilva steelworks in Taranto which alone produces 97% of the country’s dioxin. This is the cost of capital, these are the workplace fatalities for which Italy can boast that it tops a macabre league, and it is not just a technical or cultural problem but a political one.

In times of crisis, many issues and problems struggle to be heard in the consciousness of those who are working, and can get pushed to the background. I was struck by what one worker told me after a presentation: "I’d rather die of cancer than stay on the dole," because having no job and no future kills the spirit even more than a lack of money and lousy working conditions.

Stock responses of Italian rhetoric

Ask me who still remembers about the Mecnavi tragedy in Ravenna and I would answer: not many. I was giving a talk in Baldini technical institute, and of the 300-odd students, only two or three had heard their families mention it. I was greatly struck by the difficulty they had putting it in a specific historical context and their meagre knowledge of the world of work in general. Everything else apart, it was for them something that happened before they were born, with no connection to the ongoing present they live in.

A participatory, high-octane meeting “I know but I can’t prove it” organized by Manifesto, attended by a number of political activists could not have been more different; there was a perceptible sense of a very intense sharing of ideas, including across generations, and a detailed recall of the social and political dynamics of the time. I also got the sense that local authorities and institutions wanted not to talk about this story in present-day terms, to relegate it to the status of a historical event that could be celebrated with the stock responses of Italian rhetoric – tricolour-sashed mayors, banner-carrying rank-and-filers, speeches solemnly pronounced every 13 March in an attempt to take the industrial outrage out of the event and sever it from the labour strife of the present – when initially and for years it was experienced as something shameful, a mark of infamy, the greatest post-war tragedy to occur in a communist stronghold, a real blow. To the point that when my book came out, there was not, as I expected, a single officially organized public presentation in the city, except of course that of the CGIL.

As to the current mayor, while I was in Ravenna writing my book, he never thought to talk to me or give me an interview, which I found somewhat suspicious. The upshot being that this centre-left public dignitary was not happy about my telling the press how uneasy I felt about the public exploitation of the memory. Afterwards, at the first presentation of the book last summer, when the deputy mayor – a PRI member (in Ravenna, a stronghold of freemasonry and Garibaldi-influenced politics, the Republican Party is still very powerful) – I set a spontaneous and very heated discussion going, in which this second leading light of local politics was truly torn to pieces by trade unionists, political activists and readers of the paper I write for, but above all by Labour Court judge Roberto Riverso, who confirmed and added to the case I made in my book.

I believe that non-fiction narratives like Il costo della vita must be meaningful instruments to be used by the labour movement to ask real questions about why certain things have happened and continue to happen: a way in Ravenna, as elsewhere, to look at our own reflection. There are many aspects of this story that happened in 1987 which this city has not yet thought about locally, it has not questioned itself enough, it has not honestly reconstituted what happened. Such as, for example, how in the space of just four years in the mid-1980s an ordinary manual labourer – Enzo Arienti – could have become one of the biggest handling contractors in the European shipbuilding industry. He had ties to large swathes of Italy’s shipbuilding industry, and had very close links with politicians and Christian Democrats. Arienti’s own defence lawyer, Achilles Melchionda, declared in stupefaction that: "It is incomprehensible and unacceptable that for years this company was managed in a way that appeared so lacking, vague and rough and ready in terms of accident prevention, without anyone ever noticing."

No-one has ever managed to give me a plausible explanation of the tremendous rise that led Mecnavi from a turnover of 500 million to 30 billion lire in 1986. "I know," wrote Pier Paolo Pasolini, "but I can’t prove it. I don’t even have clues". I also "know", and reading between the lines of my book will tell you what I believe about this story and the various interests that revolve around this port. But in Ravenna – and not only in Ravenna – we have to at least ask ourselves why such a thing happened where it should not happen, and why it keeps happening regularly in Italy, like an inevitability, laced with the crocodile tears of the usual platitudes as if it were something physiological, imponderable with no answer, written into the DNA of the nation that is infected by it•.

From the unions

Table of contents

Learning from Ravenna