Twenty Years Ago Today

It's August in Italy, meaning people are heading to the seaside, the mountains, or farther afield for a month of holidays. Meanwhile, hordes of foreign tourists pour into the bel paese, most opting to visit the Three Kings of the Italian cittą d'arte: Venice, Florence, Rome. All of these locations can be conveniently reached by train, and most trains pass through the major railway hub of Bologna.

The station is crowded. There are students with backpacks gazing up at the schedule boards in the main hall of the station, weary families towing luggage and small children. Travelers of all ages stand in line at the ticket counters, waiting for their turn to speak with surly station personnel. Others down espresso or sip cool drinks at the station bar, one eye on the clock so they won't miss their departure time. The train platforms are an obstacle course of suitcases and tourists who study the posted schedules like tea leaves, anxious to make sure they're (literally) on the right track. Occasionally, the loudspeakers crackle and pop with unintelligible announcements of incoming and departing trains, as well as the inevitable August delays. Some passengers groan when they discover they will be waiting in the sultry heat for at least another half hour before their train arrives.

Those who have longer waits, and prefer not to stand outside in the sun, choose to sit in the station waiting rooms. Few travelers qualify for the first class room, which requires that one present an expensive ticket at the door, and has a fan (there is no air conditioning anywhere in the station). The second class room is less comfortable, but more hospitable, open as it is to anyone who wishes to sit for a spell. There is no fan, but windows on both sides of the room are kept open in a largely vain attempt to grasp any errant breeze.
Seating space is at a premium given the number of travelers today. Some students sit on the floor, leaning against their backpacks. In the corner is a group of eighteen-year-olds dressed in the drab uniforms of soldiers; boys doing their required twelve months of military service when they'd rather be back home with their friends and family. They are taking advantage of a four-day leave and are already savoring their homecoming after weeks of absence. A few have stretched out for a nap, using their knapsacks as a pillow. The room is a jumble of sweaty humanity and the paraphernalia of travel.

All is business as usual, at the Bologna train station on the morning of 2 August 1980. Nothing out of the ordinary, until 10:25 a.m.


Twenty-year-old Claudio is downtown shopping with his mother. They've exhausted the possibilities of the piazzola, the weekly outdoor market, and have decided to visit a couple of shops in the Bolognina area. They head down via Indipendenza, cross the busy viali and begin making their way over the bridge that crosses the train tracks. Traffic is heavy on a Saturday morning, and the bridge sidewalk is thick with pedestrians. Their progress is slow, also because climbing the steep arch of the bridge in the sweltering heat is draining even without having to wade through a river of other people.

They finally make it to the downhill side of the bridge, leading into Bolognina. Claudio turns to ask his mother whether she wants to stop in the bar across the street for some iced tea before they continue shopping; they're in no particular hurry, and something cool to drink sounds appealing.
Just as he opens his mouth to speak, a deafening explosion erupts from the train station. The blast knocks Claudio to the ground, scattering the shopping bags he is carrying for his mother across the street. Later, he will realize he has a lump on his forehead and a scraped elbow, but at the time he is too stunned to feel any pain. He is among the lucky ones, the ones who weren't thrown over the side of the bridge onto the tracks thirty feet below, or struck by flying debris. His mother is also fortunate, as she landed on top of another prone pedestrian. One whose arm was crushed by a delivery truck that screeched to a halt just as he hit the pavement.

After a seemingly endless shocked pause, the air fills with the sound of screams and sirens. The piercing moans of the injured send chills down Claudio's spine as he slowly climbs to his feet and surveys the scene around him, like nothing he's ever experienced. For his mother, and the others of her generation, the scene is a frightening flashback to the dark years of the war. She begins to sob uncontrollably, leaning against her son for support.


Fourteen-year-old Dario is spending his Saturday morning listening to music in his room. Around mid-morning he grabs a glass of iced tea from the refrigerator, then glances out the living room window into the street below. He sees his mother returning from her Saturday-morning excursion to Bologna. She has just got off the recently-established 92 bus line, and for some reason she is running.
Marisa is breathless as she flings open the apartment door moments later. "They've bombed the station!" she gasps as she sinks into a chair. She explains that the announcement came over the bus radio, as the driver was ordered to unload all passengers and return immediately to the station to act as emergency transportation for the victims. Dario turns on the local television station, but finds nothing; his father flips on the radio. The family sits and listens with growing horror to the account of the day's massacre.


That second-class waiting room, overflowing with families and students and drafted soldiers on leave, was transformed into the epicenter of a manmade earthquake. Among the innocuous-looking luggage heaped around the room was a suitcase packed with explosives. The entire left wing of the station is reduced to a pile of rubble. The blast knocked over the shore-bound Adriatic Express train waiting on track one, crushing many of its passengers.


Dario and his parents hear the description of the massacre become increasingly lurid. At first the announcer speaks of 10 dead, then twenty, then 30. Many victims cannot be identified. The buses become impromptu ambulances and hearses, hauling the dead and injured to the local hospitals.

The final tally is 85 dead, over 200 wounded.


It took fourteen years of legal bureaucracy to arrive at the final sentence for the massacre: three right-wing terrorists were sentenced to life in prison. Twenty years later, many still feel that justice was not served. There is strong evidence of CIA involvement, through their front organizations to combat left-wing politics in the strategically-located Italian peninsula.
In all likelihood, the truth will never be fully known. That is the way of politics.

Right now, at 10:25 a.m., the station appears just as it did that day. The hall, platforms and waiting rooms are pulsing with people coming and going. The left wing has been rebuilt, and even the second-class waiting room (still with no air conditioning, although there is now a fan). Few pause to glance at the commemmorative placque listing the names of the bombing victims; they are too busy with their current travel plans.

Meanwhile, Bologna pauses in sombre memory of how it was torn apart, twenty years ago today.