Sixteen-year-old Melissa Bassi was standing beside the paper-recycling bin outside the main gate of the Francesca Laura Morvillo Falcone girls’ vocational school at 7:45 a.m. Saturday, smoking a cigarette and texting a friend, waiting for classes to begin. Two minutes later, three gas containers—soldered together and wired with a timer—exploded inside the metal bin, killing her instantly. Rescue workers on the scene said her body was literally shred to pieces from the metal shrapnel as the canisters and bin disintegrated from the immense force of the bomb.
Five other girls were seriously injured in the attack, one whose injuries were so life threatening she was pronounced clinically dead before being upgraded to critical condition. The other injured girls required reconstructive surgery to reattach body parts and to try to save their facial features, said Graziella di Bella, head of the local hospital. “One of the girls asked me what they did to deserve this,” De Bella said to an Italian TV station. “I couldn’t answer her question.”
Immediately after the explosion Cosimo “Mimmo” Consales, the mayor of Brindisi, said the attacks were surely carried out to mark the 20th anniversary of the May 23 assassination of anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone in Palermo, Sicily. “There are too many coincidences in this affair,” he told local reporters on the scene. On Sunday, an anti-mafia procession was scheduled to pass through the southern city and many anti-afia magistrates were meeting at a conference there on Saturday night.
But in the hours after the explosion, Cataldo Motta, the public prosecutor heading up the investigation cautioned that investigators were pursuing a variety of leads, including whether there was a personal vendetta against someone who worked or studied at the school, or if it was an anarchist attack meant for the nearby tribunal of Brindisi. “This is not necessarily an organized-crime hit,” he said outside the scene. “This is not their typical mark. It is not how they generally work.”
Motta was referring to the fact that the mob uses better explosives. Falcone was killed with a half ton of dynamite affixed to a bridge outside Palermo. The Brindisi bomb amounted to three gas-grill-style canisters and a simple timer. The Pugliese mafia, where Brindisi is located, is the Sacra Corona Unita. The organized-crime ring that killed Falcone two decades ago was the Cosa Nostra, though all organized-crime syndicates fall under the same investigatory umbrella. Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso, who surveyed the scene, said that no matter who was responsible, “it was pure terror.”
Saturday’s attack comes on the heels of heightened security across Italy amid fears of anarchist attacks against government entities. Last week, Italy’s interior minister Anna Maria Cancellieri announced plans to step up security around a number of Italian governmental agencies by redeploying 25,000 police officers and troops to protect 14,000 potential targets against attacks by extremist groups. In the last several months, offices of Italy’s tax-collection unit Equitalia have been targeted with Molotov cocktails and parcel bombs. Several people have also committed suicide outside the offices to protest Italy’s stringent austerity measures. One man took several Equitalia employees hostage at gunpoint, releasing them after an 11-hour standoff. Earlier this month an executive of state-defense subsidiary nuclear-development agency Finmeccanica was kneecapped in an attack on his way to work.
The attacks and tension bring to mind 20 years of socio-political violence known as the “years of lead” that ended in the 1980s. The period was marked by car bombings, hits on monuments, and kidnappings carried out by extremist groups like the Red Brigades. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called the attack “barbarous” and warned Italians not to return to those dark times. The office of Italy’s interim prime minister, Mario Monti, who is attending the G8 Summit in the United States, ordered Italy’s flags to be flown at half mast for the next three days and expressed his “sorrow, dismay, and outrage” on behalf of his technocratic government. “We intend to work firmly and with determination to fight every type of crimes, seeking to prevent a return to Italy’s violent and subversive past.”
By Saturday night no one had claimed responsibility for the gruesome assault, but the southern port town was in a state of shock over the incident. Notebooks and backpacks were still scattered in the area around the school as anti-bomb squad teams combed the city. Students constructed an impromptu shrine with flowers and notes in memory of the young woman who lost her life and the local cathedral planned a candlelight vigil for the injured. Citizens gathered on a piazza near the school with signs to protest the attacks. “They are going to kill us all,” said one. On another: “Don’t let them win.”