Frontline World

Sicily - A Bridge Too Far? , April 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
The Strait
Il Postino
Nino Calarco
Anna Giordano
No Dolce Vita
Culture shock set in as soon as I left the Sicilian coast and boarded a train back to the Roma-Termini station. I was again wandering the streets of Rome -- which now seemed like a bizarre carnival. Potbellied men dressed as gladiators, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, charged parents to pose with their children for photographs. Clothes in shop windows cost more than I'd spent over the course of several weeks in Sicily.

Still, stepping into the headquarters of Stretto di Messina felt oddly familiar. With its sleek furniture and glossy magazines in the waiting room, the company seemed like any large American corporation. Soon the public relations director led me into a sprawling conference room decorated with a huge rendering of the bridge hanging on its wall. There I met Michele Jamiolkowski, the man Italy calls in for its major projects. Jamiolkowski, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Turin, is most famous in Italy for his role in saving the Leaning Tower of Pisa from falling over. He is also working on cleaning up the toxic mess in Chernobyl.

Michele Jamiolkowski in front of bridge image

Michele Jamiolkowski is confident that it's safe to build the world's longest suspension bridge over the turbulent Strait of Messina. Famous for his role in saving the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Jamiolkowski is used to taking on major projects.
Jamiolkowski sat next to a small, glass-encased model of the Messina bridge and explained that the project is completely feasible. "We believe that the bridge can be built and that it is safe. And it will be safe for years to come," he said.

He did admit there have been some design challenges -- seismic activity, elastic behavior of the land under and around the strait, and high winds. But he says that more than 100 top engineers have studied the area's history of earthquakes, analyzed the length and depth of the fault, and calculated the probability of devastating future quakes. And he's quick to point out that the world's current record-holder for the longest suspension bridge, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan, is in an earthquake zone -- as is the Golden Gate in San Francisco. He said he's tired of opponents spreading rumors about the bridge being unsafe.
Bridge blueprint

Stretto di Messina (the bridge company) has visions of a 2.3-mile-long single-span suspension bridge, with two towers, each about 1,264 feet high. The company hopes to begin construction next year. The total cost of the project is expected to reach 6 billion euros.

"Many people are for or against the bridge, but they are taking a position based on politics, not geology. But I am sure this bridge will help Sicily and Italy develop."

But even the man who could help rescue the Leaning Tower of Pisa seems at a loss as to how to solve the unfolding drama over the bridge.

Homer used the strait as a metaphor for making sacrifices and being forced to choose between two painful solutions. It was a symbol of tough decisions and their consequences.

Now the Strait of Messina has come to symbolize the broken promises and growing doubts that the gap between mainland Italy and Sicily will ever be healed. Bridge opponents say the project would bring more troubles to the Mezzogiorno, but won't truly solve its current problems like unemployment, lack of infrastructure, unstable water supply and Mafia corruption. Supporters insist the bridge would bring progress and jobs to southern Italy, while ending Sicily's isolation from the rest of Europe.

But nearly all of the Sicilians I interviewed during my month in Italy -- whether they were for or against the bridge -- shared a deep skepticism that it will ever be built.

"When I was a little boy, a picciriddu, I heard about the bridge. Now I have white hair, and I am still waiting," said Antonio Zarcone, a 64-year-old bookshop owner from Palermo. "And when I am very old, with a long gray beard, I will still be hearing about the bridge. I will be waiting forever for this fantasy bridge."