- CANNETO DI CARONIA, Sicily
(Reuters) - The gate at the entrance to this tiny Sicilian village has
come off its hinges and swings in the wind as cats wander into homes abandoned
after a series of mystery fires.
- This is not your average ghost town.
- Canneto di Caronia has been taken over by an endless
flow of scientists, engineers, police and even a few self-styled "ghostbusters"
searching for clues to the recent spontaneous combustion of everything
from microwave ovens to a car.
- The fires started in mid-January and have claimed home
appliances and fuse boxes in about half of the 20 odd houses. The blazes
originally blamed on the devil himself have not hurt anyone.
- After a brief respite last month, the flames have flared
up again almost daily even though electricity to the village was cut off
- "We're working in the dark. We don't have a single
lead so far," said Pedro Spinnato, mayor of the trio of Caronia towns.
- "Every time some new scientist comes to town they
arrive thinking the whole thing has been invented or that they're going
to solve the mystery in two minutes. They've all been wrong."
- ELECTRICIANS AND EXORCISTS
- The 39 inhabitants of the town halfway between Palermo
and Messina were evacuated after the regional government declared a state
of emergency in Canneto, which occupies a single street nestled between
a railway line and the sea.
- But after weeks of sleeping in a nearby hotel and houses
rented for them by the government, they're getting desperate.
- "I've seen an air conditioner burst into flames
and burn down in 30 seconds. These are not normal events, but I think we're
going to have to start looking for a different kind of help," said
Antonio Pezzino, whose house was first hit.
- From the start, Gabriele Amorth, one of the Catholic
Church's top exorcists suspected the devil was at work.
- "I've seen things like this before," he told
Il Messaggero daily. "Demons occupy a house and appear in electrical
goods," he said urging the parish priest to take action.
- The local priest, Don Antonio Cipriani, decided together
with residents to let scientists have a first go at the fires.
- After a brief visit to Canneto di Caronia, the head of
the Committee for the Control of Paranormal Claims has also ruled out demons
or poltergeists -- at least for the time being.
- "The fact that the phenomenon occurs only when there
are people present makes it hard to believe that it is a natural, or even
supernatural phenomenon," said Massimo Polidoro.
- "But we don't exclude further investigation if things
aren't eventually explained," he added.
- UNSOLVED MYSTERY
- Nobody can say the experts aren't trying. Canneto looks
increasingly like a set for the TV hit "The X-Files".
- Two fire trucks and a police jeep sit at the entrance
of Canneto on alert for the next blaze while a van with a large, rotating
antennae on top measures the radio waves.
- A host of three-legged instruments to monitor geomagnetic,
meteorological, electromagnetic and electrostatic indicators sit in apartments
and next to lemon trees in the gardens. Coloured markings on the street
indicate the presence of volcano experts.
- Police ruled out a possible prankster or pyromaniac after
they saw wires burst into flames.
- The hypotheses now range from a build-up of electrical
energy caused by grounding wires running off the railway to a rare "natural
phenomenon" in which surges of electricity rise from the earth's core.
- The fires have even consumed unplugged lamps and an entire
apartment. Black scorch marks still scar the apartment walls.
- Italy's big utility Enel cut off electricity to the town
and hooked it up to a generator -- but that caught fire as well.
- More recently cellular phones and cars have also been
acting up, with lock and alarm systems being set off without any apparent
- SACRIFICIAL GOAT?
- The evacuated families of Canneto di Caronia who gather
almost every night in the three-star hotel perched above their abandoned
village are giving up hope.
- "I just want to go home," said Rosi Cioffo,
a shopkeeper and mother of two. "I don't know what's causing it and
I don't care anymore -- even if it's the devil."
- Her nine-year-old daughter, who is frightened every time
a TV or bathroom fan switches on, may not agree.
- Spinnato, the mayor, sounds just as desperate.