The Devil Appears in Sicily
On the outskirts of the Messina province of Italy, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea lies the small town of Canneto di Caronia. The 3,300 people that populate the town are a mix of bricklayers, farmers, small-business owners and retirees who idly bronze in the sun that shines up to 350 days in this region. Most inhabitants live in the emerald colored hillsides where the branches of yellow and orange citrus trees bend towards the dusty roads in winter and overripe fruit drops on dusty roads barely missing clusters of chickens that roam free. The hills crown 3/4s of the metropolitan area. That is if the word metropolitan can apply to the single street that is positioned between a railway line and the sea consisting of a dozen or so homes. In the 1980s Nino Pezzino and his teenage son Antonio built four of these stucco and stone structured homes all topped with terra-cotta roofs and sharing a communal wild garden consisting of various plumeria shrubs for his family.
This small town with its postcard worthy landscape would all change in 2004 when the devil arrived and all the town’s inhabitants would flee in terror.
It all began on the 15th of December in 2003. Antonio, now a married man with his own family (wife Maria and 15 year old son Giuseppe) occupied one of these homes and was just sitting down to dinner when flames appeared out of the ether. Fire is generally preceded by smoke or an unnatural smell of something burning that permeates the air but in this matter one second there was no fire and the next, flames had engulfed the thick curtains on the front window the family used to block out the hot Mediterranean afternoon sun.
Mr. Pezzino sprung into action quickly and had the fire subdued before firefighters even arrived. As an insurance salesman he was well aware of the claims process so he was busy snapping photos when the firefighters arrived and placed blame on the fusebox. An unusual event that ended an otherwise uneventful day.
As if synchronized, just days later the kitchen fan, television as well as other plugged in appliances all burst into flames.
As if that was not strange enough, in the weeks that followed, Pezzino’s neighbors—his father, his mother, his aunt and cousins, who lived close together in three attached houses—also experienced unexplained fires. Antonio assumed faulty wiring was to blame so by the end of January 2004 he had replaced the wiring in all the houses but the fires continued.
These wildcat fires were not an anomaly to the homes connected to the Pezzino clan. Other homes began to notice things like a cooker or a vacuum cleaner would suddenly catch fire; even while unplugged and not in use. Further still, these flash fires were not regulated to appliances. Over the course of 17 months, things like wedding presents, random pieces of furniture and even a water pipe erupted into flames.
In several homes, water suddenly began to pour from pipes that showed no signs of erosion or breakages. Another house reported a vanity mirror in a bathroom catching fire three times in 35 hours. Then there was an entire plantation of eggplants that developed rainbow-like colors making them unfit to be sold. Air conditioners spontaneously melted. Car glasses imploded. Hard drives suddenly erased themselves. Animals began to die mysteriously. The automatic gates of one farm began to open and close where some of their livestock appeared disoriented in the road. The entire town seemed besieged by sinister occurrences no one could explain. More than baffled, the locals were terrified. The police were bewildered as they played cat and mouse with the latest phenomenon.
On February 11th 2004, the Italian government created a special Task Force and a public prosecutor announced a full investigation into the fires. The residents of this small town viewed the inquiry as an insult to suggest someone in their community was responsible.
Government investigators, engineers, scientists and technicians monitored the homes in Canneto di Caronia around the clock. On February 13, Massimo Polidoro of CICAP arrived in Canneto di Caronia. CICAP is the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudoscience’s, an Italian nonprofit. Polidoro, a psychologist, writer, and television personality, interviewed the stumped investigators at the Za Maria Hotel for CICAP’s magazine,
A portion of the local townspeople had been relocated to the only hotel in the town of Canneto di Caronia, the Za Maria that was located on a hill directly above the small village. Between those who had been relocated and the influx of investigators the once quiet hotel now hummed along at full capacity. All the guests mingled and took their meals in the grand dining room of the hotel with its stone floors and panoramic windows that displayed the glittering Tyrrhenian Sea beyond.
Rosa Mirabella, Pezzino’s elderly aunt, who moved there after the evacuation order, told the Italian magazine L’Espresso, “I never stayed in a hotel before and look at me now here like a lady.” The article described Mirabella as enjoying a bottle of local white wine along with fried calamari and maccheroni (a pasta made from milled durum wheat) all expenses paid for by the city.
Antonino was evacuated to a nearby apartment which felt like a punishment to him. He hated being away from his home and to a local newspaper reporter he described the feeling of living at this temporary residence as “trespassing.” Despite the ordinance that evacuated all the townspeople; forbidding them from returning until they could figure out what was the root cause of all these house fires Antonioni could often be found in the wild garden behind his home checking on his tortoises and dogs.
During dinner one evening in the grand ballroom Massimo Polidoro was speaking with Enzo Boschi, the president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology about recent earthquakes in the region. Three months prior to these fires, a 5.6-magnitude temblor shook Sicily, causing major damage in Palermo, the capital city. The following month, an earthquake rattled through Molise, in southern Italy and killed 27 schoolchildren. Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, is about 35 miles from Canneto. The Aeolian Islands in the sea north of Canneto di Caronia have two active volcanoes: Stromboli and Vulcano.
As a result of all this seismic activity, volcanoes and earthquakes Polidoro was suggesting this was the likely culprit but Boschi said there isn’t a single connection to any volcanic or seismic activity. “If indeed it were volcanic activity, the effect would not only burn some electrical wire,” Boschi said. “The internal forces of the earth cannot cause reactions of this magnitude, and especially in a tiny area.”
A member of the National Research Council of Italy, Max Planck, offered a combination of quantum theory and Albert Einstein’s photon theory as explanation stating that an underground energy accumulation had been channeled upwards via a network of wires to cause the “spontaneous combustion.”
Others were more skeptical and suspected a human cause. Sergio Conte, a telecom expert, told Polidoro that any electrical problems would come from the inner fibers of the cables, but when he examined the wires he saw that “the heat had only blackened and charred the outside,” he said. “At this point I realized it was not damaged due to a malfunction.”
Fires burn all the time in Sicily. Farmers use them to clear fields. Above the northern coast of Sicily, there is a forested mountain range called the Nebrodi. When it’s dry, the Nebrodi burns and burns but never anything like this.
There was one person who emerged confident he could identify the culprit. His name was Padre Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic priest in Rome, who held the title of honorary president of the International Association of Exorcists.
On February 10, an Italian paper published an interview with Amorth about the fires in Canneto di Caronia. Amorth said that “the first thing to do is to call a priest” to bless the houses. He told the interviewer: “This is a world that has abandoned God. Leaving people much more susceptible to black magic which is the preferred gateway in which Satan enters the world. I’ve witnessed this before houses haunted by the devil and the devil manifesting through electricity. “
The local priest in the town of Canneto di Caronia found Padre Amorth’s declaration embarrassing and was disappointed by his suggestions and countered that his Satanic hypotheses was “absurd.” As a counterpoint he offered: “The inhabitants of Canneto di Caronia are hard-working people who struggle every day to bring home bread, not Satanism.”
However the press was delighted with Padre Amorth’s version and for a deeply Catholic country, news of Satan sells papers. Articles appeared in L’Espresso, entitled—“Bezelbù si è fermato a Cefalù,” or “The devil stops at Cefalu,” documenting the scene at the Hotel Za Maria that housed the displaced of the town along with the investigators.
Sidenote: I am not sure why the article used the town of Cefalù which is 30 miles west of Canneto di Caronia unless its because Cefalù is a tourist destination and had better name recognition to a wider audience?
Articles were not contained locally to Italy; papers from around the world followed suit, The New York Times ran an article with a New York Post sounding title: “Canneto di Caronia Journal: Electricity Goes Wild. Did the Devil Make It Do It?”
While newspapers focused on the sensational, the investigators and scientists focused their efforts and conducted an extensively thorough analysis using aerial photo remote sensing to map patterns, geologists made assessments using geophysical and geochemical data, detection of magnetometric and electromagnetic fields, radio-electric spectrum monitoring, and more. The results, however, were inconclusive. The mayor had all the power from the central plant to the houses cut but even with the electricity off fires would occur. Metal, plastic, and insulation all burned. Throughout the village, outlets burned red hot through the holes—cords lit up like sparklers, an electrical motor melted. The only conclusion police came up with was ruling out this was not the work of a pyromaniac or hoaxer after several of them produced eyewitness accounts of seeing electrical wires burst into flames.
The taskforce, which began in February continued on through the months of March and April all without resolution. The fires would appear and subside. As the months continued life at the Za Maria hotel had deteriorated. The innkeeper’s lawyers sent a letter to the mayor of Canneto di Caronia, Pedro Spinnato, asking his government for payment on the expenses that had swelled to $100,000.
In June of 2004 the fires seemed to stop. The hotel was evacuated as all the residents returned home for the start of the Sicilian summer. Although the flames and smoke cleared from the air; mystery lingered keeping residents and their imagination on edge.
That October as the seasons changed, fire returned. Along the rugged coastline the salty air of the Tyrrhenian Sea mingled with the smell of burning. One night, Antonio dragged Giuseppe from the flames. Couches were destroyed. Kitchens too. In addition to flames, pipes and mysterious tubes developed holes and burst, flooding homes with water. In Pezzino’s kitchen, the tubes under the sink were punctured. The newspapers and media returned and Antonio Pezzino invited them into his home hoping someone could explain. The government’s response was quick and everyone was forced to evacuate that October and would not be allowed to return until June of 2005.
The residents appointed a consultant, Francesco Valenti, an engineer from Capo d’Orlando, a city 25 miles up the coast who confirmed the theory of geomagnetic activity. According to Valenti, both the holes and the fires were caused by a type of electrical currents burning through the pipes. Antonio Pezzino went to the papers complaining this was the fault of the Protezione Civile investigators for not monitoring the town 24 hours a day, as they were supposed to.
The Italian government had formed a new research group for the second evacuation. This new group was headed by Francesco Mantegna. The new interdisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, geomagnetists and professors now had the additional cooperation of the air force and navy. The telecommunications ministry formed an auxiliary group along with the rail network and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.
Helicopters conducted radar and magnetic surveys on electromagnetic fields and monitored and mapped radio-electric signals and meteorological patterns. Instead of focusing only on Canneto, the team sought to understand if there were natural or artificial forces affecting the region, including the sea and the airspace above.
Soon, the team excluded natural causes; nothing in the realm of science proved unique when they compared Canneto with neighboring towns. Nor did they find anything unusual in the technical installations—railway lines, electrical lines, and so on. What they did find were increased levels of spontaneous electromagnetic activity that could not be attributed to natural phenomena. They decided that the fires had an artificial cause.
Electromagnetic radiation is made up of waves formed by a change in a magnetic field. These waves are found everywhere and operate on a spectrum, encompassing many forms of energy that bounce around in our world, ranging from visible light to invisible radio waves, from radar, X-rays, and satellite communications to microwaves and powerful lasers.
No house fires occurred during their research, but in the mountains outside the town, they found two dense patches of grass that looked like they had been consumed by a fire that had come from underground. Mr. Francesco Mantegna compared the burn marks on the grass with the marks on the power cords from Canneto and found the patterns to be identical: Whatever had caused the fires in the homes had also burned the plants.
Aerial photos showed that Canneto and the plants seemed aligned in a straight path extending from the sea, into town, and up to the mountains, as though a channel of fire had torched all three. Their hypothesis was that the plants had somehow conducted the same bursts of electromagnetic waves as Canneto. On the coast below the town, hundreds of blue velellas, sea creatures similar to jellyfish, washed up on the beach. All this seemed to suggest that whatever was causing the fires was coming from outside. The researchers believed that Canneto and its surroundings were being struck by “pacchetti d’onda,” or intense bursts of electromagnetic waves of some kind, at such a large scale “that it couldn’t be generated by one person.”
The strangest occurrences Mr. Francesco Mantegna witnessed during his study all occurred while on a helicopter. The first was as the team patrolled the area, something hit three of the aircraft’s rotor blades, rupturing the protective coating of each at the same point. They suspected a bird strike, but the researchers couldn’t find any biological traces, “not a drop of blood” as he later reported.
The second was something witnessed by all four people aboard the helicopter. They reported an object that appears and moves in a circular formation before disappearing with astounding speed. This same object later appeared over the sea and this time lights appeared from beneath as it moved in a precise movement back and forth over the land in a pattern too fast with a movement too fluid to appear to be any known aircraft. Since they were working in coordination with the air force they reported their findings only to receive word the military had no reported aircrafts in the vicinity at the time.
The press reported extensively on these flying objects. In addition to the devil, they now had definitive UFO sightings to fill their pages. While UFO sightings filled the headlines nearly all of the residents of Canneto di Caronia began to complain of pain in their extremities. Medical testing for all was proposed but never occurred.
Mr. Francesco Mantegna brought in a specialist who confirmed the resident’s appointed consultant, Francesco Valenti (the engineer from Capo d’Orlando) assertion that electromagnetic waves could have negative effects on people, and that electromagnetic radiation of the type they thought was affecting the area could have grave consequences. But all this remained in the realm of the unproven.
By the spring of 2007 the government ended its funding of the studies and that winter Mr. Francesco Mantegna and others from his group presented a report to the Italian government hoping to receive renewed funding.
The report somehow was also leaked to an Italian newspaper who published the Civil Protection Department’s report concluding that at first they believed the only plausible explanation was an experimental application of industrial electromagnetic weapons system technology but after further scientific studies they concluded that there is no known record or source for any man made ability to produce electromagnetic emissions measuring upwards of 12 and 15 gigawatts. (For comparison, lightning strikes can vary in strength but Dr. Emmett Brown was right when he said they can produce 1.21 gigawatts of power. Spoiler Alert: Doc Brown was able to transfer the 1.21 gigawatts into the DeLorean’s flux capacitor.).
So who is the proposed culprit the report suggests? Aliens.
In 2008, four years after a pair of front window curtains exploded into flames the fires had seemingly stopped altogether. The town was happy to put fear and mystery behind them; the case was dismissed and the fires attributed to an “unknown electromagnetic radiation.” And the prosecutor ruled the incident as “officially unexplained.”
In July of 2014, the fires returned and this time they were much more aggressive. In an eighteen hour period there were 48 blazes. Six of those fires occurred in the same home. The home belonged to Antonio Pezzino’s mother, Lorenzina di Pane. Embroidery tucked away in a closet went up in smoke. Later a sofa bed. Then electrical outlets and loose wires. Finally a television.
Residents decided to sleep outside and in shifts so someone was always alert to call the fire department. One man and then two women suffered inexplicable burns. Other residents experienced swelling and inflamed muscles. By August of 2014 the residents were evacuated.
However, Antonio Pezzino decided to leave. He took his own family along with his mother and her two sisters to a nearby town to stay with family.
On September 24th and 25th there were nearly fifty fires reported each night. A journalist Marila Re was allowed to stay at the Pezzino’s during this time and reported that it was total chaos as the fires came faster than they could be put out. She said she watched a suitcase at Pezzino’s aunt’s house dissolve in front of her. Another time she went down into the cellar of Pezzino’s house when it caught fire. A relative of Pezzino’s, Salvatore Rossello who had returned to town to pick up some belongings was in a house gathering belongings when he stopped to look out the window and see the interior of his Fiat Bravo in flames.
In the press, attention turned once again to Francesco Mantegna’s report. Mantegna blamed the government for disbanding his group. The Protezione Civile announced that there would be a new group to study the fires, working in tandem with the Ministries of the Interior, Defense, Health, and the Environment. At the announcement of the group, Mayor Beringheli said: “We continue to trust in the institutions and hope the new group will follow the old one.”
When the fires had started again the Italian military police also began their own investigation into the matter. The officer in charge was Capitano Giuseppe D’Aveni; he had joined the local force in 2014. Most of the officers who worked on the 2004 fires had moved on, and D’Aveni decided to launch a full and thorough investigation anew.
During the evacuation and without any public notice the police were able to install four hidden cameras facing the homes and the street and started filming, 24 hours a day, for eight months.
From these recordings on September 24, Antonio Pezzino and his son Giuseppe are seen ambling around a truck on one end of the street and disappear for a moment. When they reappear they begin looking into the truck’s windows when suddenly Antonio Pezzino flings open the door and smoke pours from within.
On September 30, Giuseppe walks behind a shed across the street from the Pezzinos’ home. His father stands on the other side of the street, chatting with a group of men. Soon the men discover that the shed is burning—a plastic bag filled with clothing has caught fire. On the same day, Giuseppe appears to set fire to his uncle’s Fiat Bravo and his cousin’s Alfa Romeo, moving stealthily between the parked cars and a fire truck parked on the road. In one segment he walks in circles, checking to see if anyone is behind him with a quick turn of the head, ducking out of the frame the minute the car begins to burn. All told, the police documented about 40 incidents in which Giuseppe, and in some cases the recording implicated Antonio’s father, Nino.
The Italian military released a statement to the press that Giuseppe Pezzino had set the fires in order to raise media attention to the areas and that his grandfather Nono had concocted the scheme in which more and more fires would bring fame and money for the “Phenomena of Caronia.”
Along with video footage the police tapped the Pezzinos’s phone and recorded many conversations in which Nino spoke about trying to get money for damages while also hoping to drum up interest in the fires by being offered television appearances hoping public sympathy with gather up a collection to reimburse them as well. When the person on the other line asks if he wants a new house somewhere else, he replies, “I don’t want a house. I want money.”
While the Pezzinos’ largely spoke in a guarded language there were lapses in their encoding in which they clearly implicated themselves. One example is a conversation between Antonio and Giuseppe where the father worries over the idea of the police potentially monitoring Giuseppe’s internet searches asking his son if he used the computer to look up “incendiary powders or a laser” to which the son replies he only used his home computer to look for a winch for a boat. (A winch is a rotating spool, driven by a motor, that can tighten or loosen a cable.)
On the morning of March 5, 2015, Giuseppe was arrested and charged with arson, conspiracy to commit fraud, and sounding a false alarm. His father, Antonino Pezzino was also implicated as well. Giuseppe was put on house arrest in Santo Stefano, one town over, at an aunt’s house. His grandmother told the press how she spent her 78th birthday among the flames and there was no way her grandson would have caused that to her.
Something bizarre happened that morning of the arrest announcement. After the military officer read the charges for both father and son he then launched into a criticism of Francesco Mantegna’s research. Research that Mantegna had concluded eight years prior.
Speaking to the gathered press the military officer told the media they have “finally laid to rest Mantegna’s crackpot theory” and added “during the year and a half time in which Mantegna conducted his research he never witnessed a single fire.” While it came off as both unnecessary and egotistical to some; the press piled on criticism of Mantegna by publishing articles the following day lambasting Mantegna’s research which cost the government over $600,000.
Mantegna was shocked. The articles about wasting 600,000 in taxpayer money made headlines; his reply was printed under the ‘letter to the editor’ section. In his reply Mantegna corrected the distribution of that 600,000 saying that was the government’s total cost of the investigation. His team, which the government hand selected, only accounted for a fifth of that cost. The government paid the other 480,000 in relocation costs, hotel bills and reimbursements for destroyed property none of which had to with him.
Three camps emerged as a result of Giuseppe’s arrest. One, he was guilty of these fires but not the ones back in 2004. Another camp believed he was guilty for both of them. The third camp which made up the vast majority of people believed that another source was responsible. This camp included the mayor during the 2004 fires, Calogero Beringheli, who did not believe any of the residents were capable of committing these arsons. Others in this camp included Francesco Re who was both the current mayor of Santo Stefano as well as the father of Marila Re, the journalist who had witnessed Pezzino’s aunts suitcase dissolve in front of her and later was caught in a cellar fire in Pezzino’s house. She explained that while she respects the judiciary investigation she knows she was alone when she witnessed both events going further to say how between the squeaky hinge on the automatic closing cellar door and the creak of the old wooden boards that made up the steps along with being in such a small confined space there is no way she would have not been aware of another presence.
Francesco Mantegna, the man who led the 2005 research group for the Italian government, believed what happened in 2014 has nothing to do with the events he investigated from 2005-2007. His belief was centered on the wide radius of the phenomena that he had observed which included plants located on the adjoining hills plus the lights that he witnessed circling over the sea and homes.
An overwhelming majority of people drew a clear distinction between the 2004-2007 fires and the ones that occurred in 2014. For Massimo Polidoro, the psychologist, writer and television personality who investigated the original fires of 2004 the arrest confirmed what he already knew. He stressed that, “since not a single fire had taken place when everyone’s whereabouts could be accounted for, you could not rule the town people. Even though an evacuation was put in place someone was always running back to pick something up.”
Where the faithful saw the hand of Satan the agnostics saw the possibility of UFOs but no matter what you believed one thing for sure is that audiences around the world were captivated by the fires of Canneto di Caronia but this fantastic story came to the such a banal conclusion: a local corrupt character tries to fraud the government out of a fortune. The riddle, now replaced by a common crime.
No matter which of the three camps people fell in somehow everyone felt unsatisfied by its conclusion. Nowadays the town of Canneto di Caronia
is forgotten. No more journalists. No more scientists. The population has dwindled to ten people who have all abandoned the houses and live at the Za Maria hotel up on the hill where the dining rooms’ former polished stone floors and 360 views of the sea are littered with burned items, alongside trash and old appliances that partially block the view and give everything a downcast feel. The last time the Tyrrhenian Sea was featured in international news it was for its distinction of having the highest level of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor [1.9 million pieces of plastic covering just one square meter at the bottom of the ocean].
As for Giuseppe Pezzino, he was never arrested or charged with starting the original Canneto di Caronia fires of 2004. Though he was charged with nearly forty fires caught on film in 2014. Incidentally, 2014 the strange phenomena has never again occurred in Canneto di Caronia. Giuseppe was offered a plea deal of a five year sentence but he would only admit to four fires and took his case to trial. The trial concluded on December 11th 2018. The results of which have never been published.
The fires that occurred from 2004-2008 that were investigated by that interdisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, geomagnetists and professors with cooperation from both the air force and navy plus the auxiliary groups from the rail network, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and the telecommunications ministry whose reports were filled with detailed accounts of the unexplainable languish in files of the Italian government who has chosen to shrug its shoulders and close the case.
But there are individuals who still can’t wrap their head around what occurred. The Ministry of Communications for the Kingdom of Italy’s report on those 2004-2007 fires details how the electrical cables showed no signs of burning all along the ducts that ran behind the outlet all the way out to the transformers. When they reviewed every cap terminal (which holds several conductors together) for all the houses that reported electrical fires they couldn’t find a singular sign of overheated copper. Overheated copper is easy to recognize because it becomes rigid and brittle while its appearance takes on a dark color. Yet the telecoms experts who reviewed every terminal cap connected to these houses (we are talking about a grand total of a dozen houses) showed all the strands that were blonde (completely normal appearance).
Furthermore, the cables fixed to the external walls were not affected by the fire. Inside the house all the burnt cables were not at the plug but everyone in every single house began precisely 1.9685 inches from the plug and the burned marks always went from the bottom up. The devil is in the details so they say. These technicalities only describe anomalies found by the telecommunications ministry. There are several other reports by leading scientists in their field that are filled with bizarre details for a series of fire and other phenomena that ran for a period of three years which conclusively rule out the work of human interference that have never been further investigated.
At best, any mention in the press in these intervening years is waved away just like the Italian government’s prosecutor concluded at the end of his research in 2008. When the fires and public fever subsided he concluded the case: “officially unexplained.”