Images of a burning bus in the heart of Rome became a searing symbol of the danger posed by an aging fleet and call into question the Italian transport authority’s ability to manage risk.
Public transit bus number 63 ground to a halt on Tuesday, May 8, near the Trevi Fountain, a popular tourist attraction in Italy’s capital, before standing ablaze.
It burned for a while, then exploded.
Video captured and widely shared on social media showed flames shooting into the sky, leaving the facades of the two nearest buildings smeared with black soot.
The transport authority that manages the public transit service in Rome–Atac–said no passengers were injured, but local media reported a shop assistant in the vicinity suffered shock and burns to her arm.
Adding to the crescendo of concern are reports that a second vehicle under Atac management–this time a school bus–burned in the suburbs later the same day.
There were no reported injuries.
This brings the total to 10 buses this year destroyed by fire, stoking anxieties over whether last year’s tally of 22 will fall.
“Every day there is greater risk,” wrote transport consultant Fabio Rosati, according to a BBC report titled “Why do Rome’s buses keep catching fire?”
And the immolations have become so commonplace, Italian journalists joke, that nobody even thinks to blame terrorists.
“Only in Rome does a bus explode in the heart of the city and people immediately blame Atac, with no thought of terrorism. It says a lot about our emergencies,” wrote Raffaella Menichini, an assistant editor for La Reppublica, a major daily newspaper.
Solo a Roma un #autobus esplode in pieno centro e la gente individua subito nell’#atac il responsabile, e non pensa al terrorismo. La dice lunga sulle nostre emergenze https://t.co/AqKEKzd68l pic.twitter.com/PEw5Zcyi4C
— raffaella menichini (@menicr) 8 maja 2018
Atac, in a statement, said that it had “immediately opened an internal investigation to ascertain the reason for the fire,” adding that one of its representatives alerted the fire crews that put out the flames.
“The car was completely destroyed,” Atac said of the hollowed-out husk of a 15-year-old Mercedes.
The fleet, Atac says, is very old.
But representatives emphasize the company “has intensified preventive actions to minimize the risk of fire.”
Steps include a 1.4 million euro tender to install fire-extinguishing systems in engine compartments, or reactivating dead links in a spare parts supply chain.
Atac promises all this will “significantly improve the overall state of maintenance.”
But critics dismiss this as cheap talk.
Journalist Michele Galvani of Il Messagero, one of Italy’s oldest newspapers, accused the city authorities of “playing with citizens’ lives.”
“Today could have been a massacre. In which other European capital do buses explode like this? These jokers play with citizens’ lives and continue to make announcements,” he tweeted.
Lo vogliamo dire. Senza paura. Oggi poteva essere una strage. Ma in quale altra capitale d’Europa esplodono #autobus di linea? Quale? Questi scherzano, giocano con le vite dei cittadini e continuano a fare annunci. #bus #Roma pic.twitter.com/moVLjVQfFb
— Michele Galvani (@GalvaniM) 8 maja 2018
Union officials sounded the alarm back in March, after the fifth bus fire of the year.
“Atac services are unsafe. Drivers just have to pray that nothing happens and we don’t want to think about what could happen when the hot weather comes because if we wait for this authority to solve the problem then we’re in trouble. Or indeed, incinerated,” the Faisa Confail union’s regional secretary Claudio De Francesco told Roma Today.
Initial investigations point to a short circuit occurring before the fire engulfed the bus, according to a report by La Repubblica.
The blaze broke out at the back, the newspaper reported, and the bus driver quickly evacuated passengers to safety.
Atac insists that what they’ve done is already making things safer.
“The actions put in place have resulted in a reduction of fires in our vehicles by about 25% in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period of 2017,” the company stated.
Not good enough, says consumer rights group Codacons representative Carlo Rienzi.
“We can no longer be silent about what seems to all intents and purposes an emergency,” Codacons said in a statement.
The organization is demanding the public prosecutor force the buses off the streets if safety cannot be guaranteed.
A former head of Atac said last year the company was suffocating under some 1.3 billion euros ($1.54 billion) of debts and should declare bankruptcy.
According to an internal Atac report, 36 percent of the company’s buses are in garages because they have broken down or are undergoing maintenance.
Atac’s woes reflect broader problems afflicting the city’s infrastructure.
Many of Rome’s roads are riddled with potholes after a particularly cold, wet winter, while almost 50 sinkholes have opened since the start of the year.
Reuters contributed to this report.