hen the Rome fire brigade official finally got got through to the boy trapped in the well he talked about comic book super heroes. He told him that The Great Mazinger, “Mazinga Z,” was on his way. So was Gig Robot, a Japanese cartoon android with giant steel pincers. Together, they would save the day.
Don’t worry, the chief said soothingly into his walkie-talkie.
The boy, speaking into a microphone that had been lowered into the shaft, thanked him. He was tired, he said. He had peed his pants. He wanted to sleep.
Don’t sleep, said the fire chief. Don’t.
The fireman’s name was Nando Brogli. The six-year-old boy was Alfredo Rampi. They conversed regularly for two days in June 1981. They would never meet.
“Our story,” novelist Giuseppe Gemma says of Italy, is “the story of stories.” It is also the story of the best laid plans.
Italy of 1981 was a serrated knife. On May 13, a 23-year-old Turkish nationalist named Mehmet Ali Agca shot and seriously wounded Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, making good on a two-year-old threat. He’d first issued the warning when the newly elected pope visited Turkey in 1979. Then, he’d been ignored. Now, photographs caught his Browning 9-mm pistol outlined against a bewildered crowd gathered for the pope’s weekly outdoor audience on a Wednesday. The brazen assassination attempt stirred allegations that Agca had been sent by Soviet proxies eager to end the Polish pope’s energetic anti-communism.
More pressing on the home front was the emergence of the P2 (“Propaganda Due“) Masonic Lodge run by a man named Licio Gelli. Prosecutors characterized Gelli’s organization as a proto-fascist shadow government bent on destabilizing the country. In March, investigators released the names of 972 people allegedly tied in spirit or deed to Gelli’s Italian cell. They were businessmen, secret service chiefs, and politicians, most of them inclined toward the country’s ruling Christian Democratic Party and its anti-communist allies. Gelli, meanwhile, absconded to Switzerland. On May 26, Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani, a Christian Democrat, quit and Giovanni Spadolini, the portly head of the secular Republican Party, was summoned to form Italy’s first lay government.
As reporters pored over Gelli’s eclectic list (ambitious Milan property developer Silvio Berlusconi was on it), the Red Brigades resurfaced and crossed into vendetta. On June 10, a commando team abducted Roberto Peci, the brother of Patrizio Peci, a former terrorist who had turned state’s evidence. In August they abandoned Roberto’s mauled corpse in suburban Rome with a Mafia-style placard that read, “Death to Traitors.”
But for four days in June, young Alfredo’s survival struggle eclipsed these events. Major national newspapers and agencies veered from political machinations and devoted themselves only to him. The octogenarian Italian president sought him out. The three state television networks — which had a national monopoly — simultaneously transmitted his story, often live, an unprecedented feat of technical prowess and ratings-hungry sensationalism. In 72 hours, Alfredo’s predicament became the locus that helped propel Italy into the media-driven second half of the 20th century. Unified by defenselessness, empathy, and the allure of the grotesque, Italians surrendered by the millions to voyeurism. The country tipped backward toward its molten core, the transfixed mob.
All for a boy who fell into a well.
THE ONLY PUBLISHED photo of Alfredo Rampi shows him at a beach, grinning, a black-and-white cherub in a horizontal-striped T-shirt exuding the filial looks that can bring caring people to heel. Italians for whom parenthood is a sacred vocation saw a son, or imagined one. The psychological narcosis set in early and endured.
Alberto lived in Vermicino, part of an agglomeration of homes and farms in the rugged countryside under Frascati, the Alban Hills town known as the hub of Rome’s local wine industry. His 50-year-old father Ferdinando worked part-time for the state water company, ACEA, and owned a small country house; his mother Franca tended to Alfredo and his younger brother. Born with a congenital heart defect, Alfredo was slight for his age. Cardiac surgery had been set for September.
Midday on Wednesday, June 10, 1981, Fernando walked to the edge of the property to repair a fence, Alfredo by his side. At some point, his son strayed off — “he had the soul of a young Huckleberry Finn,” wrote the newspaper La Repubblica, one of many fanciful characterizations (no one had met the boy) that persisted for weeks.
June 10 was inordinately hot and humid. In 1981, air conditioning was virtually unknown in Italy, considered something of a health hazard. For adults, shade and afternoon rest were the chosen analgesics; boys, meanwhile, stirred up their own breezes. Alfredo knew the terrain, rough with interconnected vineyards and desiccated stretches of earth kind only to stubby olive trees. He liked cavorting in the underbrush.
Near the Rampi home, a neighbor (later indicted) had dug illegally through the volcanic terrain hoping to find water. Such practices are commonplace even 25 years later. He’d register the clandestine well only if it bore fruit. Meanwhile, he shoved a girder over a primitive tunnel that corkscrewed 80 meters into the earth. Midway down, the 40-centimeter shaft narrowed to 30, the width of a car seat. These details emerged later.
Some time in the afternoon of June 10, Alfredo, curious or careless, fell in.
A COCOON OF LIGHT lingers over central Italy in the weeks before the summer solstice. At first, Fernando Rampi didn’t notice his son’s absence. His mother hadn’t seen him. She urged him to look as she began preparing dinner for his younger brother at about 7 p.m. Fernando expected Alfredo to emerge running from some hiding place. A local boy said he’d seen Alfredo playing alone. When? asked Fernando. Hours ago, answered the boy.
Walking, he yelled Alfredo’s name from time to time. Nothing.
Fernando returned frustrated. “What if he fell into that well?” said Veja, Alfredo’s edgy aunt. Franca Rampi, levelheaded and laconic, disregarded the remark. So did Fernando. They were not shrill people. They also knew the well was covered by a girder. They didn’t know it had been moved.
At 9:30 p.m., with last light packing up, Fernando Rampi finally called police.
What followed was a gloomy fairy tale that conflated modern and medieval.
When police arrived, only a few at first, they broke into flashlight posses. Two hours of searching yielded no trace of Alfredo. Police then summoned sniffer dogs, muscular German shepherds that yanked their panting masters into the deep blue night. The slapdash canvassing lasted more than three hours, until past midnight. The fire department, known in Italy by its military designation, the fire brigade, joined in.
Now, it was Thursday, June 11.
At between 1:30 and 2 a.m. a fire brigade officer named Giorgio Serranti learned about the artesian well and found it off a dirt road. Fernando Rampi still imagined it as potted over by the girder but Serranti immediately saw that the beam had been moved, probably to allow further digging. He couldn’t hear for the din: barking dogs and the vehement clatter of meaty men with stained armpits, cigarette smoke pouring from their mouths.
He ordered silence, bent down, and shouted into the cavity.
Nothing at first.
He tried again and heard a feeble word. Mamma.
ITALIAN TELEVISION in the late 1970s seemed mired in uproar. While the three national networks still fed on RAI, the gargantuan state system, unregulated local channels cropped up and spread like mushrooms. Most had limited transmission range and dawdled on the air for a few hours a day. Rome had several such local broadcasters, and they soon entered the fray.
Haggard reporters showed up and flashed klieg lights into the shaft. This both helped their story and assisted officials, who lacked such powerful illumination. Flat to the ground, rescuers took turns shouting downward, “Can you see us, Alberto?”
Then a voice. “No, I can’t,” the boy whimpered.
A fireman lowered a flashlight into hole by rope. “Shout when you see it,” he said.
It dangled three-stories underground, 36 meters, when Alberto finally cried out. The flashlight returned mud-encrusted.
Soon, additional fire brigade units arrived. Captains conferred and argued. Between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. rescuers made the first in a series of sincere but ill-fated choices. They decided to lower a wooden plank into the shaft so that Alfredo could grab hold of it and be winched to safety. This was how they imagined it.
The plank, like the flashlight, was lowered by rope. At 24 meters, the line went slack. Tugging made the plank come loose. The shaft was now constricted.
Journalist Pierluigi Pini, a night-shift reporter for Italy’s second channel, RAI2, saw snippets of the Vermicino story on private TV and alerted his Rome news desk. In November 1980, a major earthquake had struck the Campania region near Naples, killing more than 2,900 people and injuring 10,000. Rescue exploits captivated the public and Pini sensed an appetizing human interest story. His editors concurred. The first RAI team arrived at the Rampi home just after 4 a.m. TV technicians again helped the rescuers, dropping a two-way mike into the shaft until the boy could be clearly heard via walkie-talkie.
But he didn’t speak.
Instead, he wept. “Mamma,” he said, “get me out of here. My arm hurts and my leg hurts. I’m tired.”
Amateur spelunker Tullio Bernabei, only 23, joined the vigil during the night. The plank plan shocked him for its foolishness. So did the scene: Everyone and no one seemed in charge. The well opening had been widened so that a lithe man could fit. He volunteered to climb down and clear the wood. Inside, Bernabei found himself in an earthen membrane whose erratic contours pushed at his nose, buttocks, and feet. What if Alfredo, half his size, was lodged midway down? Free fall was impossible, only slippage. If that was the case, the priority was to avoid further sliding.
Bernabei could not get to the plank.
Back on the surface, he urged fire crews to recruit professional spelunkers. But Bernabei’s age worked against him. There was no time, he was told.
Sugar water was dropped down and the boy sipped at it. Doctors on the scene were told about his congenital heart defect. Listening into the RAI microphone, they gauged Alfredo’s breathing at five times the normal.
At 6 a.m. Thursday, fire brigade rescuers consulted with local builders and concocted a plan to bypass the problem of the narrow shaft. They would drill a parallel tunnel to a spot under Alfredo’s position. They would then dig a lateral shaft and pull him across.
Bernabei objected. He’ll slip, he warned. Get help.
By this time, Rome fire chief Elvino Pastorelli had taken over the decampment. An imposing figure interviewed often in the aftermath of the 1980 Campania earthquake, Pastorelli grabbed a megaphone and shouted into the hole, “Alfredo, I’m the fire chief.”
“How many men do you have?” asked the boy, suddenly curious.
“I have 100. I promise to get you out of there.”
“Good,” said Alfredo, baptized “Alfredino,” little Alfredo, by the media.
Told of a drilling rig in the vicinity, Pastorelli ordered it in. It arrived at 8:30 a.m.
The Alfredo story was now national news. Morning broadcasts led with footage of the scene. Reporters and producers began to work in shifts. The parallel shaft solution was sold as salvation, a quick fix. But the euphoria passed.
At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, the rumbling drill bit stalled at 11 meters after hitting granite. A second, more powerful rig was ordered in and arrived two hours later, at about 2 p.m.
Now, RAI upped the ante: It would cut to live coverage on all three channels, an unprecedented move. Between 2 p.m. and Midnight Thursday, some 12 million Italians watched the “Alfredino” saga. The number grew to 15 million, then 25. In all, the blanket coverage lasted 60 hours, 18 of them live. In Italian media terms, the Alfredino saga was September 11 — but this was 1981, only a year after CNN had started its landmark broadcasting.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, the scene turned dreamlike. Onlookers made indolent by heat and helplessness wandered around smoking and looking hypnotized. Makeshift concession stands peddled orange-flavored soft drinks.
Oxygen was threaded through a tube to help Alfredo breathe more easily. He had chills, he said aloud. He was thirsty.
By 7 p.m. Thursday the second bit penetrated to 21.4 meters before its drill teeth snapped on volcanic strata. At 8:15 p.m. a third rig arrived, this one poised precariously on a tractor-trailer. The new drill mashed loudly, its cooling water spitting silky jets of moisture over the crowd. Car horns blew. New arrivals prowled for parking spots.
Then, suddenly, sirens: Police dashed into the crowd and gesticulated. Drilling was temporarily suspended.
Eighty-five year old Italian President Sandro Pertini had arrived. A Resistance hero with a gruff, magnanimous manner, Pertini was considered an honest no-nonsense man. He wore a dark suit despite the heat and went straight to the well, vowing not to leave until the boy was rescued. “This is breaking my heart,” he said.
Fire brigade lieutenant Nando Brogli was ordered to keep Alfredo awake and alert. Megaphone in his right hand, unfiltered cigarette in his left, he stripped to his shirtsleeves and knelt beside the hole. Alfredo wouldn’t stop crying.
“Don’t cry,” said Brogli, “It’s all going to be fine — andrá tutto bene — Manzinga and his metal claws are on their way to free you. Aren’t you happy? Don’t worry, we’re having some problems but we’re getting you out.”
He wiped his brow. The drilling continued.
At 10:30 p.m. Thursday, a gnomish volunteer named Isidoro Mirabelli asked to descend. He looked like a prehistoric sage, a dummy or a wizard made from withered cartilage. TV crews eager to create talismanic figures quickly dubbed him “spider man.” The 52-year-old Sicilian cleaved his way to a depth of 20 meters, just above the plank.
“Alfredo!” yelled Mirabelli.
Alfredo responded annoyed. “Can’t you just let me sleep and stop playing games,” he scolded.
Mirabelli resurfaced scuffed and bruised.
As the hours wore passed, Pertini’s implacable vigil became that of a father, or a grandfather. His chain-smoking bodyguards meandered around him, incandescent pebbles on their lips, the ground slowly colonized by embers.
After half-a-day of largely ineffective drilling — it lasted Thursday night and into Friday — the third rig penetrated to a depth of 34 meters, two less than Alfredo’s presumed position. Then rig no. 3 coughed to a crawl.
On Friday afternoon, doctors gauged Alfredo’s breaths at 50 per minute; the boy was wheezing. He complained that the noise around him kept him awake.
Don’t sleep, insisted Brogli. Try not to.
At 4 p.m. Friday, with the drill still laboring, Pastorelli changed tactics. He shut down the rig and ordered six men into the parallel shaft with jackhammers. Burrow down, then across, he ordered. They obeyed. After 24 hours, fire crew had nearly carved an underground bridge between the two tunnels. So far, only fire officials had handled the rescue. No spelunkers had been called in. No international appeal had been issued. Later, La Repubblica and others would contest this as an omission: “Maybe they would have done it differently in Oregon or Ohio. Or Stockholm or Bonn. We’ll never know…”
At 5:48 p.m., fire official Beppe De Santis finally crawled into Alfredo’s shaft. He flashed his light up, then down.
“He’s not here,” exclaimed De Santis. “I can’t see him.”
He then heard the boy’s faint voice. His heart sank. It came from far below. He thought of a stone dropped into a deep pool, the echo muffled.
Bernabei’s fears had been born out. The vibration from the drilling and the jackhammers had made Alfredo slip further. New markers put him at 29 meters below the aperture of the parallel tunnel, or 61 meters — 200 feet — into the earth. The mean temperature at that depth is freezing. Alfredo faced hypothermia.
De Santis emerged crestfallen. The now-desperate Pastorelli scanned the entourage for help.
Before him stood the empire of the make believe: dwarves, contortionists, elves, and each one bidding to enter the shaft headfirst in a last-ditch effort to save the boy. “Colored people, midgets and hunchbacks, chattering human relics, each with their own manager, standing in line,” wrote La Repubblica. One had his own megaphone and advertised himself to the crowd as Er Microbo der Tufello, or “The Germ of Tufello,” a working class Rome suburb.
Pastorelli abandoned any pretense of protocol. Now, only size mattered. Who would fit? The microphone was lowered further to pick up Alfredo’s murmuring.
“I’m sleepy,” he repeated, then went silent.
At 8:45 p.m. on Friday, June 12, Bernabei, still on the scene, strapped ropes on his ankles and began the first in a series of headfirst descents into the original shaft. These efforts would last nine hours.
Bernabei thrashed through detritus to the 40-meter mark. The deeper he went, the colder the stale air.
“Keep your eyes closed. Don’t move,” he shouted to the whimpering child. Dangling, the blood rushing into his head, Bernabei struggled to remain conscious while trying to see the boy. But he only heard him. “He’s crying and crying,” said Bernabei.
Mothers sat glued to TV. In a pre-mobile phone era, telephone traffic hushed. People watched and waited.
At 10:20 p.m., Claudio Aprile, another tiny volunteer, took his turn. He gave up at 50 meters. He, too, heard the boy’s laments. “Alfredo, be good,” he said. “I’m sending you down some milk… be good. Breath with your mouth open. Be good.”
But Alfredo only sobbed. Above, Pertini pressed the headphones to his temples. “Shut up,” he snapped at reporters. It was one of the few times he raised his voice.
At 11 p.m., Angelo Licheri stepped forward. Emaciated and spectral, Licheri was perhaps the oddest of the volunteers. To get past the cordons, he had told police he was an expert in “well-diving” — there is no such skill — and a credentialed spelunker. In fact, he was just a 24-year-old typographer.
At 11:20 p.m. Friday Licheri began what turned into the most excruciating dive. By the time he was winched downward it was already Saturday morning, June 13. The amphibian Licheri reached 50 meters. Then 55. At 12:10 a.m. Licheri saw Alfredo, his body rising out of a bog of mud. The mud, peeling from the shaft, dripped into Licheri’s hair and eyes.
“Slowly,” he said, “slowly.”
Then, a few minutes later: “I HAVE HIM…”
Then, “Stop. Stop! Stop, dammit! I’m losing him…”
Licheri demanded that rope handlers pull him one way, then another. He screamed and cursed repeatedly. The mud, he moaned. Damn the mud! Porca la miseria. Damn, he said again. Then, he, too, was jammed.
Fifteen minutes later, the wild-eyed Licheri was extracted, bruised and in shock. Seven times, he said, he’d grasped Alfredo, seven times the boy slithered away, a fetus wriggling from forceps. Licheri fainted. He was rushed to a hospital.
The commotion went out live.
Descents continued through the night. Even these had subplots. At 3:10 a.m., a Neapolitan named Pietro Molino suited up before a local magistrate intervened. How old was he? asked the magistrate. Sixteen, said Molino. He needed parental consent, said the judge. An argument ensued. Restrained, Molino thrashed his arms and wept.
Donato Caruso, the last of the miniature volunteers, began his plunge at 5:02 a.m. on Saturday. Alfredo had been in the well for two-and-half days. To solve the problem of adherence, Caruso carried handcuffs. He hoped to cuff Alfredo to him.
Caruso reached 60 meters at which point his transmissions take on agonizing poignancy.
“I see him!”
“I have him!”
“I’ve cuffed his wrist.”
“He… he’s slipping. His wrist has slipped out.”
Caruso was at a depth of 63 meters, 20 centimeters. He touched Alfredo, trying to cradle him.
“He’s not breathing. He’s stuck with his head tilted back. He’s not breathing.”
Caruso repeatedly yanked at Alfredo’s inert body but it wouldn’t budge. He was hauled back to the surface. A sonar probe, lowered the night before, detected no heartbeat. At 6:36 a.m. Saturday, June 13 doctors pronounced Alfredo Rampi dead. Television broadcast the announcement.
But the melancholy carnival persisted. Some refused to accept the verdict. A medical student recommended the insertion of a trained monkey. Another suggested flooding the well to “float” Alfredo up and out. Gypsies arrived in caravans and wailed in unison to stave off death.
Within minutes of Caruso’s extraction, Pertini was gone. Some said he wept in his car. Live coverage was suspended. Franca Rampi was quoted as saying, “I knew it would end this way.” Later, Bernabei, who would make a career in Discovery-style documentaries, blamed the tragedy in part on “improvisation, pressure, and lack of coordination.” Fernando Rampi, while praising the volunteers, said more or less the same. Responsibility was gradually extended to the fire brigade, accused of taking on too much while lacking expertise; to the landowner who built the well, who was charged but never convicted; to arcane forces that had used Alfredo to divert media attention away from the country’s most pressing concern: the P2 scandal.
The next day, liquid nitrogen was poured into the well to preserve the body. Alfredo’s mummified corpse, frozen solid, was extracted 31 days later. By then, schools had closed and Italy was on vacation.
“After it was over,” wrote La Repubblica on June 14, “everyone conferred and proclaimed that some kind of terrible injustice had been committed, an abuse of power by someone. Then, they all went to the bar and talked some more. Finally, they all went home.”
— This piece was first published on June 1, 2007. The American reprints it annually.