As the 65th anniversary of the Marcinelle mining disaster looms, has Europe forgotten its lesson, of social solidarity amid diversity?
In June 1946, Italy and Belgium signed the ‘men for coal’ agreement: as Europe struggled to recover from the impact of the second world war, Italy agreed to send its surplus manpower to the mines of southern Belgium, in return for 2-3 million tonnes of coal a year at preferential rates.
The 75th anniversary was commemorated this June at the Bois du Cazier, Marcinelle—site of Belgium’s worst-ever mining disaster, which took place just ten years later, killing 136 of those Italian migrant workers.
Every year since 2002, at 8.10am on August 8th, the great bell of Maris Mater Orphanorum at the former mine tolls 262 times. Its name is a reminder of the 417 children who lost their fathers that day in 1956, when 262 men died deep below ground.
A day like any other
That sunny summer day was no different from any other. Around 7am, the 275 men on the morning shift descended as usual to their workstations, unaware of the disaster to come—which was to have a huge impact, not only within Belgium but across the continent.
The accident is thought to have been caused by human error. At 975 metres below the surface, Antonio Iannetta’s job was to push the trucks full of coal into the lift cage. But a loaded wagon failed to eject an empty container already in place. At that moment, miners at another level unexpectedly set the lift in motion.
As it rose, the two protruding vehicles struck an oil pipeline and two high-voltage electrical cables, damaged a compressed-air supply line and disabled the telephone system. The oil spray caught fire, fed by compressed air, and the blaze rapidly engulfed the wooden joists and supports of the mine shafts. The tragedy was under way.
The ventilation system pumped smoke and carbon dioxide into the galleries, trapping miners at the coalface on different levels. Just seven workers managed to reach the surface, accompanied by clouds of dense black smoke, the first indicators of the catastrophe unfolding far below.
As news of the horror spread, mothers, wives and children rushed to the colliery—contemporary photos showed them clinging desperately to the massive iron gates. For 15 days they waited, as rescuers from Belgium, France and Germany fought to gain control of the fire and recover survivors, and media broadcast the unfolding tragedy to the world. But only six more emerged from the inferno. On August 23rd, the rescue teams finally penetrated the lowest level, 1,035 metres down. The families heard the verdict they dreaded: ‘Tutti cadaveri!’ (all dead).
As well as the Italians, the dead comprised 95 Belgians, eight Poles, six Greeks, five Germans, five French (including three Algerians), three Hungarians, one Briton, one Dutch, one Russian and one Ukrainian. It took four months to recover the last bodies—rendered bloated and unrecognisable by water and putrefactive gases—and some were buried in the local cemetery.
The disaster generated an unprecedented spirit of solidarity among the communities involved and respect for the miners themselves. Outside Belgium, nowhere did it make a greater impact than in Italy.
Rapid postwar reconstruction
After the war, Belgium had launched a rapid industrial reconstruction, with the coalmines and steelworks of Wallonia at its heart. It quickly became apparent that the local workforce was not only inadequate but unwilling. Belgian mines had a reputation for the lowest pay and worst conditions in Europe, and mineworkers were despised. ‘Anything but the mines’ was a common sentiment.
In search of manpower, the government looked around Europe. The most promising source was Italy. Emerging in ruins from the war, the country lacked the resources to support above all its impoverished southern communities, where—after decades of oppression and neglect—families survived on subsistence farming or emigrated.
The accord of June 23rd 1946 provided for 50,000 Italian labourers to be sent to Belgium. The Italian government set about finding recruits throughout the country, advertising only the attractions of the job: promises of free travel, paid holidays and early retirement. It made no effort to check on the real working and living conditions awaiting its migrant citizens.
Between 1946 and 1949, 77,000 Italians reached Belgium in convoys, far exceeding the manpower target. On arrival, they were dispatched to various parts of the country, where they were housed in corrugated iron hangars or barrack-blocks—some built by the Nazi occupiers to house Russian prisoners of war. They were indeed more like concentration camps.
In the 1950s there were 20 mining companies operating in the Charleroi basin, employing 25,000 men, half of them Italians. By 1955, the Bois du Cazier had some 700 workers and was one of the most productive mines in the area. But already there had been fatal accidents, killing 16 men in 1930, for example. For some, the catastrophe was a tragedy foretold. The Italian communist newspaper, L’Unità, was not alone in warning compatriots of the atrocious working conditions and the lack of safety precautions in Belgian mines.
In his 2011 book, La catastròfa, the journalist Paolo Di Stefano recorded accounts by miners and their families. Michele Russo described the living conditions:
In the winter we perished from the cold and in the summer we suffocated. But we had to be content and not complain. We knew of people who made do by sleeping in rabbit burrows or with the pigs. We lived in shacks and slept without sheets, just a blanket, in the middle of all the chemicals and dirt. During the night, someone talked in his sleep, saying ‘I want to go home, it would be better to go and graze cows’.
In 1951, Nando Sampietro, later editor of Epoca magazine, visited the lodgings and found five miners to one room. He wrote: ‘They seemed to be fighting for air. Five beds, five shirts hanging up to dry, 10 socks strung on a line.’
Although the 1946 accord promised decent housing, this failed to materialise. Some married men brought their wives and children to join them, in the hope that seeing their ‘beautiful families’ would persuade the mine authorities to provide better accommodation.
Finding private rooms to rent was almost impossible. The Italians were despised and local landlords put up signs barring ‘animals and foreigners’. Integration was out of the question. As a result, many families were left back in Italy, where wives and children were lucky to see their husbands or fathers once a year.
Those who did arrive in Belgium ran heavy risks. ‘The children rapidly fall ill in the camps and barracks,’ noted Sampietro. ‘In some, there is not even water to wash in. They play in the rubbish and breathe the tainted air of the mine. They grow up in a tough atmosphere, among stories of tragedy, day after day, between tears and arguments.’
Between 1946 and 1955, some 500 Italians perished in Belgian mines, not taking account of the lifelong legacy of injury and illnesses, such as silicosis and pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) and cancer. Some of the new arrivals were so appalled by the conditions they found that they refused to go back down the pit. They were rounded up by police, imprisoned and promptly deported. But for most there was little choice.
‘Back there [in Italy], we died of hunger. There was nothing to do,’ explained Nunzio, an ex-miner. ‘In Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, where would you go to ask for work? You died of hunger, and the only alternative was to leave.’
Were we afraid? Yes, very, very, very. But back in your village what could you do? My father was a miner in the asphalt mine in Manoppello. He died of silicosis. But when American petrol arrived they closed the mine and sent us all to Belgium.
My wife arrived four months after me in 1953. We lived badly in tin shacks, with water dripping on our heads, and risking death if the flame of the gas heater went out. In those days, when people saw us they called us ‘dirty macaroni’ and sandwich thieves, claiming we stole their bread. You couldn’t say: tonight I’ll take a train and visit Brussels or Waterloo, because the police would stop you and put you in prison.
Some of the volunteers were also communists who had already been blacklisted by Italian employers, although many found that their reputations followed them.
The Marcinelle disaster hit Italy so hard in part because many of the victims came from the same areas. The village of Manoppello in Abruzzo was the worst affected, losing 22 men. Similar tragedies played out in villages in Calabria, Sicily and across the south of the country, leaving widows and children in destitution.
Memories still raw
The Bois du Cazier, closed and abandoned in 1967, was restored through funding from the European Union and opened to the public in 2002 as a memorial, a museum and a UNESCO world-heritage site. Masterworkers at Italy’s oldest foundry in Agnone, Molise, cast the Maris Mater Orphanorum bell, erected on the site in the same year.
For family members, the memories remain raw to this day. Loris Piccolo was eight years old when her father died. She described how ‘everything comes back to the surface: the pain, the sorrow, the whole life we have lived’. Her father, Ciro, left northern Italy in 1948 and was working 1,035 metres down when the fire took hold: ‘We only found his body a month later.’
Michele Cicora’s 40-year-old father, Francesco, left for Belgium in 1948. Michele remained in San Giuliano di Puglia in Molise with his mother and six siblings and saw his father for the last time when he was just four years old. In June 1956, Francesco had been home to arrange for his older son Mario to emigrate to Venezuela before returning to Marcinelle. Tragically, he had written: ‘Now Mario is gone, I will try to do more overtime and make enough money to come home to Italy. I’m tired and I can’t go on. I can’t kill myself here.’
In the 1970s Michele moved to Britain to teach Italian but returned regularly to the Bois du Cazier, ‘to be near my father’. Francesco’s body could not be identified, but two years ago Michele requested DNA testing of the 17 ‘unknown’ victims in the cemetery, to enable him to take his father’s remains back to Italy. He expects the long wait for official approval to be over this year.
‘They had a rotten life here. They never saw the daylight. It was a tragedy for them, but we were left paying for the consequences. The pain was left to us,’ he said. His mother died in 1993: ‘She was a saint, but she suffered in silence. Being the youngest, I lived the tragedy with her for the longest.’
In his request, Michele appealed movingly ‘to European governments to preserve the union of the various countries, which, despite their differences, have common origins’. He went on:
The European Union was born here … just after the Second World War, with the sacrifices of the workers who moved from one country to another. It is enough to note the origins of the miners who died in this mine: Italian, Belgian, Greek, French, British and others. It would be a tragedy to destroy what has been built with so much sacrifice. Let us not forget that we have had over 70 years of peace.
Entire management absolved
The impact of the disaster was far-reaching, transforming Italo-Belgian relations. Italy terminated the migration agreement. The Belgian government started to look elsewhere for workers, signing bilateral deals with Spain and Greece and later prompting mass immigration from Morocco and Turkey. Men took strike action in other collieries, as they realised their lives too were at grave risk.
A commission of inquiry reported back a year later. But it left many questions unanswered and, three years after the accident, a criminal trial absolved the entire management of responsibility. On appeal, in 1961, just one man, Adolphe Calicis, an engineer, was sentenced to six months in jail for negligence.
The absence or late arrival of more senior personnel on August 8th was left unexplained and unpunished, as were a list of failures in mine safety—including lack of training, a shortage of water for the firefighters, poor maintenance of rescue equipment and the absence of a water spray system, together with an inadequate insurance contract signed just 21 days before the disaster. The Bois du Cazier was badly prepared and grossly disorganised in its rescue procedures.
It took eight years for the victims to secure a compensation settlement, of just 5,000 Belgian francs per family. As late as 1976, one of the Italian widows took action in the European Court of Justice, after the Belgian state had illegally withdrawn her family allowances.
The researchers Alain Forti (now site curator) and Christian Joosten concluded that questions were not asked or answered because, at the time, too much was at stake politically—ranging from the country’s energy policy to fear of wider social unrest. Calicis had in fact risked his life trying to save other men. The real blame went much wider.
Nonetheless, some things changed for the better. After August 1956, for the first time, Belgian miners were routinely issued with gas masks and received better training. New steps were taken to integrate Italian workers.
Belgium also convened a conference on coalmine safety and, in September 1956, established a Mines Safety Commission. It was charged with monitoring safety procedures and developing new regulations.
The accident had broader consequences. In 1957 the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community—the forerunner of the EU set up to take the raw materials of warfare out of the hands of national governments—also called an international conference and took greater control over mine safety. The overall response to the disaster led to much improved conditions in Belgian and other European mines.
Engraved in memory
Marcinelle remains engraved in Italian memory to this day. In 2001, the government chose August 8th as a day to mark the sacrifice of Italian workers abroad. In 2016, just after the United Kingdom voted to break away from the EU, the then Senate president, Pietro Grasso, called for ‘a moment of hope … hope that we will remain more united between countries and continue to give a home to refugees’. He said: ‘We know what migration is, and the flight from violence, from hunger and from poverty.’ Yet since then, most EU countries have failed to learn those lessons or show the solidarity that should underlie European unity.
Today, Belgium’s Italian community numbers some 360,000, including a recent prime minister, and this summer the national francophone broadcaster, RTBF, dedicated a week of programming to the Italian presence and its influence on Belgian society. Paul Magnette, mayor of nearby Charleroi, believes the Italian men and woman who came to dig for Belgian coal embody the link between Wallonia and immigration. They forged the area’s prosperity and its very identity, he said. The president of the European Parliament, the Italian MEP David Sassoli, was at the ceremony to mark the ‘men for coal’ accord.
The Bois du Cazier remains a place of education, as well as pilgrimage for the families of the Italian victims, for the children and the grandchildren who return year after year. It has important lessons to teach about human dignity and respect. It is witness not only to the savage working conditions in which men and women have laboured for centuries, but also to the age-old experience of migration: migration for work, migration for survival, migration to scratch out a half-decent living for loved ones who may never be seen again—and to give hope to future generations.