The Santa Croce Tragedy

The day is October 19, 2017, a sunny Thursday in the beautiful city of Florence. My family and I made most of our day by starting with a tour at the Duomo before the crowds started packing the square. After the stair-climbing workout to the top of the cathedral, we headed half-mile south to visit another gem of Florence - the Opera di Santa Croce.

Santa Croce, built in 1385, is the largest Franciscan church in the world and home to the final resting spots or memorials to some of the greatest figures in history: Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, Dante, and Leonardo Da Vinci, to name a few.

We entered the cathedral at 2:30 pm local time. The interior was filled with beautiful sculptures, paintings, and altarpieces, and frescos. If you're an artist, you can easily spend an hour analyzing the architecture of the masterpieces.

One piece that really caught my eye was Michelangelo's Tomb by Vasari. As I was admiring it, a tour group started to move in, and the guide was describing the monument. The tomb features three sculptures of women expressing emotions of sadness. One to the left, one in front, and one to the right of the tomb. Vasari personified these three women to the skills that Michelangelo was known for - painting, sculpting, and architecture.

The tour group moved on, while my father approached me. He asked if I learned anything while leeching off the private tour group. I explained everything that I remembered, and he gave me a pat on the back, surprised that I actually learned something for once (or at least that's what I think that was what's going on in his head...)

At 2:44 pm, there was a large BOOM sound, that echoed through the cathedral like a tidal wave swashing on a beach. Two seconds of silence was interrupted by a large scream. In my head, I thought a bomb had detonated somewhere close outside. With Europe on high alert for terroristic activity, I didn't want to rule anything out. I quickly found my mother and as a family, we huddled to triage what just happened.

My position (blue circle) relative to the location of the incident within the Opera

It only took a few moments to realize the sound came from inside the church, and that something happened towards the front. The church was nearly in silence - only whispers of short, succinct sentences filled the gaps of stillness. Other guests were pointing to the ceiling. Following their gestures, I realized what just happened. A decorative stone fell 60 meters from the top of the church to the ground.

A peduccio (missing on the left) fell 60 feet from the position. A similar peduccio remains perched to the right.

Minutes later, the sound of sirens echoed through the basilica's open doors. After talking with a couple of other guests, I learned that the stone that had detached struck a guest right before it hit the ground.

Ten minutes later, the administrators asked for us to gather our belongings and head out the door to the right. As I was walking out the door, I took a glance toward the front of the cathedral to the sight of two paramedics performing CPR with all of their might.

Outside of the main basilica was the first cloister, an open courtyard. My parents and I bowed our heads and prayed for the victim's health and for our safety throughout the rest of the trip.

The victim was Daniel Testor Schnell, a tourist from Barcelona, Spain. Testor Schnell was in town with his wife to celebrate the couple's 24th wedding anniversary [1].

The Opera di Santa Croce was closed to the public on October 20th. This was the first time the church was closed since 1966 [2].  During the closure, Florence prosecutors opened a homicide probe case, listing Opera President Irene Sanesi, Secretary-General Giuseppe De Micheli, technical chief Marco Pancani, and the owner of the maintenance company who last checked the building's condition. The purpose of the probe was to root cause the structural failure, and to identify any acts of negligence that led to this incident.

The church eventually re-opened to the public in November.

On February 8, 2019, the Florence prosecutor's office closed the investigation. The investigation uncovered that part of the structure was deteriorated due to humidity. The infiltration of rainwater over time left the peduccio in an unfavorable state until it collapsed [3].

The Opera di Santa Croce left a statement, stating that the death of Schnell is a source of profound sorrow and great confusion for all, and indicated that the organization's primary interest is preservation, and must continue to contribute to the best of procedural developments:

 “La drammatica morte di Daniel Testor Schnell costituisce per tutti ancora motivo di profondissimo dolore e grande sconcerto. È primario interesse dell’Opera, che si impegna nella cura del complesso monumentale, il raggiungimento di chiarezza sui motivi che hanno portato a questo evento”. Così l’Opera di Santa Croce commenta la notizia dell’emissione dell'avviso di conclusione delle indagini da parte della Procura della Repubblica di Firenze rispetto all’esito delle investigazioni compiute in proposito. “Adesso - prosegue l’Opera – continueremo a contribuire al meglio agli sviluppi processuali”.

That day truly opened my eyes to how fragile life is. My parents and I left the Opera with the crowd a half-hour after the incident and continued on to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sunset and to process the tragedy that just unfolded right in front of us...

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