It was the last day of the summer vacation, 2017, and two Italian boys wanted to end on a high. They asked their parents if the family could visit one of the country’s volcanic regions before returning to school. It wasn’t an unusual request, many kids are fascinated by the fiery phenomena. In addition, the brothers had been learning about this particular site in school. Their mom and dad agreed and treated their sons to a final day out. The foursome travelled from their home near Venice, to the volcanic Campi Flegrei to the west of Naples. But no-one in the family could have foreseen the tragic horror they would witness on their sightseeing trip.
Campi Flegrei means Phlegraen Fields in English, and it is a very dangerous place despite being a tourist attraction. It measures nine-and-a-half miles across and boasts 40 volcanoes, both dormant and active, and the whole area constitutes a super-volcano. In December 2016, volcanic activity there had increased to levels where expert observers worried that the whole thing might erupt. Then, in August 2017, built up energy caused an earthquake on the western border of Campi Flegrei. It measured four on the Richter scale and killed two women and injured several more inhabitants of the island of Ischia which was close to the epicenter.
One of Campi Flegrei’s volcanos is Solfatara, a word which is derived from “sulpha terra,” meaning land of sulfur in Latin. It was formed about 4,000 years ago, and because of its volatile nature the Romans believed it to be the home of Vulcan the fire god. Since those times and before, people flocked to Solfatara to bathe in its hot springs, believing the volcanic vapors to have beneficial properties. Despite the dangers, today’s tourists continue to visit.
Solfatara re-opened as a more modern tourist attraction in 1900. Although bathing there is no longer allowed, sightseers still come to enjoy the natural drama of the bubbling mud and steaming fissures in the ground. Conveniently located near the town of Pozzuoli, Solfatara draws hundreds of tourists a year. This is thanks in part to the rising popularity of volcano geo-tourism.
Although Solfatara last erupted in 1198 and is now considered dormant, that does not mean there is no longer any volcanic activity there. The ground surrounding it is warmed by molten lava flowing just below the Earth’s crust, and when this magma meets groundwater the results are spectacular. Sulfurous steam explodes from fissures known as fumaroles at temperatures of up to 320°F. Solfatara tour guides sometimes hold lighters to the steam, illustrating to amazed visitors just how flammable the sulfuric gasses are.
The entire Solfatara area covers about 82 acres of volcanic and wooded landscape. Signs and paths lead to particular spots of interest for the thronging visitors. On the morning of September 12, the four-strong family party of the two excited brothers and their mom and dad from near Venice were among that number. They were enjoying the sights and sensations of being in the volcanic region, unaware of the appalling fate awaiting them.
Massimiliano Carrer, 45, and Tiziana Zaramella, 42, had travelled to Solfatara with their sons, 11-year-old Lorenzo and seven-year-old Alessio, from the small town of Fossalta di Piave just north of Venice. Sweethearts since their school days together, Carrer worked as an engineer and Zaramella as an airport worker. A friend of the family later affectionately described the couple as a “force of nature.” But it would be Mother Nature who would wreak utter devastation on their family.
What happened that morning is still under police investigation. But apparently, at about 11:00 a.m., the family had stopped at the largest fumarole in the area, Bocca Grande – or Big Mouth – when the tragic events unfolded. According to some reports, eldest Lorenzo strayed past a barrier and into a prohibited area. His parents are said to have tried to pull the boy back, but a ten-foot deep hole opened up beneath them. “Either there was a small explosion, or the ground simply gave way from their weight, and they fell into this hole,” said Luca Cari, a spokesman for the national fire brigade which later attended the incident.
Another version of events says that Lorenzo slipped into a pit, possibly after straying into a prohibited area – although this is denied by his brother, Alessio. The ground around where the accident happened is notoriously unstable, so this may have been what made the boy fall. Alternatively, he may have been overcome by sulfurous gasses from the pit and fainted. Either way, Lorenzo’s father was then said to have tried to pull his son out, only for him to topple in too. The panicked mother tried to help them both, but she ended up falling in as well.
However they got there, the three family members now found themselves at the bottom of a deep pit filled with boiling hot volcanic mud and toxic sulfur gases. Sadly, the three of them had no chance. Whether it was the shock of the mud’s extreme temperature or the poisonous fumes that killed them, mercifully they were quickly overcome. Little Alessi ran to find help, but for his entire family it was already too late.
Guerriero Armando operates a bar of the same name just outside the entrance to Solfatara. He was working that day when an understandably hysterical Alessi ran in to the establishment. “He saw his parents and brother falling into the crater,” Armando later told the media, adding, “He didn’t know whether they were alive or dead. He was crying and calling his mother’s name. In the 40 years that I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Within minutes of being alerted, emergency services had raced to Solfatara. “The medical ambulance came right away, but we could not do anything,” read an official press statement issued subsequently. The Bocca Grande area was evacuated and the three bodies were retrieved from the pit. The three covered figures were a haunting sight laid out on the ground. And one of the bodies was heartbreakingly small.
Onlookers were shocked to the core by the tragic scene and distressed by the cries of Alessio. One witness, Diego Vitagliano, a resident of Pozzuoli, later spoke to Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. “I didn’t think I would find myself confronted with the most brutal tragedy of my life,” Vitagliano said. “I too am a father… I did not imagine that I would have seen such… I continue to think of the family and of the poor child who was crying and calling for help.”
Volcanic tourist spots around the world attract more than 100 million people every year. Unfortunately, with more and more people wanting to experience volcanic activity for themselves, the potential for deaths and injuries is also increasing. Patricia Erfurt-Cooper is a lecturer in tourism and co-author of the book Volcano and Geothermal Tourism. Speaking to Earth Magazine in 2012, Erfurt-Cooper stated, “When we look at the tourist numbers, we are talking about mass tourism in potentially dangerous areas.”
Nevertheless, there are still no global safety guidelines for volcanic sites. Many people are unaware of the dangers posed by sulfurous gasses near volcanoes. When they erupt, hundreds of people can be killed by these gasses, but even around dormant sites the steam from fumaroles is hazardous. In 1990, three people were poisoned by gas in a natural vent on the Tavurvur volcano in Papua New Guinea. Another three unfortunates died trying to retrieve the bodies. Deaths have also been recorded from the effects of sulfuric gases escaping from thermal baths and lakes.
Since the fatalities at Solfatara, the privately owned site has been closed while investigations are concluded. The prosecutor for the Naples region alleges that the owners – Vulcano Solfatara Srl – did not update risk assessments or take sufficient care in fencing off dangerous areas, such as the Bocca Grande fumarole. Acting as a witness, the courageous Alessi Carrer, now eight, testified that his brother did not go past any boundaries, but plunged into the hole from a designated pathway.
On September 23, 2017, an estimated 3,000 people gathered for the funeral of Massimiliano Carrer, Tiziana Zaramella and their son, Lorenzo, in a church in their hometown. The death of three members of this young family had touched many not only in Italy, but all over the world. As, indeed, had the plight of the surviving Alessio.
The small church at Fossalta di Piave had filled to bursting point an hour before the funeral. In a particularly moving scene, the members of Lorenzo’s junior rugby football team, San Donà, gathered around the small coffin to embrace it. A team jersey had been placed on its lid. Alessio did not attend the funeral, no doubt it would have been too painful for the already traumatized child.
Alessio now lives with his paternal grandparents in Fossalta di Piave. A charity rugby match has been organized between San Donà and a local side, with all proceeds being donated to the young boy. Andrea Cereser, the mayor of San Donà di Piave, spoke to the online news site Venezia Today. He said, “[It] will bring together the whole [community] for Alessio, remembering that from now on we have all the commitment to help this child grow up.”
Unfortunately, the Carrers will almost certainly not be the last victims of Campi Flegrei. As previously mentioned, experts believe the super-volcano may be on the brink of eruption. This is especially bad news for the highly populated area surrounding the site, including the city of Naples. An eruption would occur if built-up pressure from underground magma pushes to the surface. And scientists led by Dr. Luca De Siena, of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, have already detected a “hot spot.” Speaking to U.K. news website The Independent, De Siena said, “What this means in terms of the scale of any future eruption we cannot say, but there is no doubt that the volcano is becoming more dangerous.”