Giacomo Chiapparini was in his warehouse near the city of Bergamo on Sunday evening when a domino effect caused thousands of his cheese wheels to fall from the metal shelves where they were being stored and aged — burying him underneath.
Grana Padano is a parmesan-style hard cheese that is popular in Italy. Chiapparini’s warehouse contained about 25,000 cheese wheels, each weighing around 40 kilograms, stacked high on 10-metre-tall shelves, AFP reported.
Firefighters said it took about 12 hours to finally dig out the 74-year-old from under the pile of cheese.
“When we got there, the whole warehouse was full of cheese wheels on top of one another,” said Daniele Retto, a spokesperson at the local fire brigade department, via NBC News.
“We had to call the unit that specializes in the search and rescue of people under the rubble, especially after an earthquake. They spent hours moving the wheels by hand, one by one, and found his body only in the morning.”
One local resident told Italian media that the sound of the cheese falling was “like thunder,” the BBC reported, and the economic cost of the accident is estimated to be 7 million euros, or $10.3 million.
According to Bortolo Ghislotti, a friend and neighbour of the victim, Chiapparini and his son Tiziano, 50, were tending to a machine that cleans the cheese wheels when the accident happened.
Ghislotti said in an interview with NBC that the machine gave out an alert, prompting the pair to investigate.
“These machines clean and rotate the wheels, so when they find them even slightly out of place, they send a warning,” Ghislotti said. “It’s a common problem. So Giacomo and his son went there to adjust the wheels.”
After the problem with the machine was fixed, the son left the warehouse while his father re-started the machine. Moments later, the thousands of cheese wheels began to fall.
“Tiziano told me he heard a massive noise, he turned around and saw his father buried under thousands of cheese wheels. He knows that if he got out seconds later, he would be dead too.”
Ghislotti said the fire brigade arrived in minutes but there wasn’t much they could do to save Chiapparini.
Authorities have yet to determine whether the 74-year-old died from asphyxiation or blunt-force trauma from the falling cheese. It is still unknown what caused the shelves to collapse.
Ghislotti said this kind of accident is unprecedented in the region.
“Something like this has never happened, even during the earthquake in Emilia Romagna in 2012. Thousands of wheels fell back then due to the tremors but nobody got killed.”