SESTO CALENDE, Italy — The black clouds appeared quickly, sneaking up on sun-seeking revelers on the lake in northern Italy, interrupting early-evening aperitivi and lakefront strolls. A weather warning issued earlier in the day had not foreseen the violence of the storm that burst over the lake, with winds so extreme they sank a boat, killing four of its 23 passengers.
As news stories go, the incident on Lake Maggiore on Sunday was a freak tragedy that would usually have attracted fleeting attention.
But in subsequent days, the story took off in the Italian media when it emerged that 21 people on the boat were spies or former spies — including 13 from the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, and eight Italian ones. Official explanations that they had been celebrating a birthday did little to quell a speculative frenzy about their activities.
Two of those who died belonged to Italy’s intelligence service, according to a note issued by Italian intelligence, while Israel said that another victim had been a retired Mossad operative. The fourth victim, a Russian woman, had been married to the boat’s skipper.
What, Italians wondered, were all those spies really doing on a Sunday afternoon cruising on a rental boat named the “Good…uria” (a play on an Italian term for pleasure)? The gathering was quickly labeled a “spy party” by several media outlets.
Some outlets speculated whether the Alpine boat trip had been an opportunity to swap information. Was it a coincidence that the skipper was fluent in Bulgarian, as some noted, and married to a Russian, Anna Bozhkova? Had the spies been scoping the lake for Russian magnates investing nearby, as the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera posited Thursday?
The prosecutor looking into the incident, Massimo De Filippo, and his boss, chief prosecutor Carlo Nocerino, said such questions were outside the scope of their investigation, which is to determine what made the boat capsize and sink.
Carlo Carminati, 60, the skipper, is being investigated on suspicion of negligent homicide, causing a shipwreck and being responsible for injuring the surviving passengers. “We’re not interested in what the passengers were doing,” said Nocerino in an interview in his office in Busto Arsizio in Lombardy, the region containing the part of the lake where the boat sank.
Nocerino said that he had asked the captain of the team trying to bring the boat to the surface to advise him immediately when it was back above water so that he and De Filippo would be the first aboard.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the boat had been dragged close to shore but remained underwater after several unsuccessful attempts to surface it using balloons.
“I don’t want there to be any doubt that we didn’t pursue the investigation to the fullest extent,” Nocerino said. The boat and its contents would be confiscated and placed under judicial authority, he said.
The prosecutor acknowledged speculation in the media that the government could shut down the investigation should documents or briefcases be found. “If we find briefcases, we will confiscate them,” Nocerino said dryly.
Adding to the intrigue, the surviving passengers appeared to have been spirited away from the lake within hours of the accident. The Mossad sent an aircraft to return the Israeli survivors home and tried to prevent publication of details about the incident in Israel, according to two Israeli defense officials. (The Israeli media reported that the Israeli casualty was a Mossad veteran only on Wednesday.)
A statement issued by Italian intelligence identifying two of the victims — Claudio Alonzi, 62, and Tiziana Barnobi, 53 — as members of Italian intelligence said they had been in the area “to attend a convivial gathering” for the birthday of one of the group. A spokesperson for the Italian agency said it had nothing to add.
Israeli information services have not officially released the real name of the Mossad veteran. His funeral was held in Ashqelon, Israel, on Wednesday.
The Mossad issued a statement Wednesday noting that “due to his service in the organization, it will not be possible to elaborate about him. The Mossad has lost a dear friend, a dedicated and professional worker who had dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel for decades, even after his retirement.”
The former Mossad operative who died had belonged to a unit responsible for covert liaison with foreign intelligence services, according to a former senior defense official, who asked not to be named when discussing sensitive relations between espionage agencies.
Although he had retired from service at the Mossad, he continued to serve as a reservist for the organization and arrived in Italy together with his colleagues as part of a cooperative relationship between the Israeli and Italian spy organizations, the former official added.
The Mossad and Italian intelligence cooperate on issues of common interest, such as the war on terrorism, or gathering information on the Iranian nuclear project, he added.
None of the survivors had identification documents with them when they gave statements about the accident to Italian military police officers Sunday night. They said they had lost them when the boat capsized, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also confirmed that the Italians told the investigators they were employees of the presidency of the Council of Ministers, a catchall government department, while the Israelis said they were part of a government delegation.
Whatever the uncertainties surrounding the case, one thing that was certain was the unexpected violence of the storm on Lake Maggiore on Sunday night.
The civil protection agency for the Lombardy region had issued a Code Yellow — a caution — for the lake about possible thunderstorms that night. While all bulletins had warned of worsening conditions for the area, “such intense phenomena were considered unlikely that evening,” said Paolo Valisa, a meteorologist with a local weather agency. “You can predict a thunderstorm, but until now we haven’t been able to predict its intensity, at least in such a localized area.”
Nearby wind speed indicators on the lake indicated gusts between 42 and 60 kph, but it could have been even higher where the boat got trapped by a downburst, powerful winds that descend with cold air from a thunderstorm and spread out, he said.
Samuel Panetti and several friends had also been on the lake in their boat Sunday evening and were the first to rescue survivors of the Good…uria.
“The weather had been fine all day,” he said, but when the storm hit, the rain was so thick, it was like navigating through a cloud. “There was so much rain and hail, and the wind tossed the boat from left to right,” he recalled.
He saw what he first thought was a group of seagulls in the middle of the lake, but upon getting closer, he saw they were people from the sinking boat, “shouting for help, like children.”
He and his friends helped some get on board their boat and threw “anything that floated” into the water for others to latch on to. A few of the survivors managed to swim to shore.
The two female victims were found trapped inside the charter boat, which sank to a depth of about 50 feet. A third victim was found on the bottom of the lake, while another had been recovered floating.
“It was terrifying seeing all those people in the water; it seemed like a scene from a film. I still have a hard time believing it was true,” he said. “If we hadn’t come by, I think they would have all died,” he said.
Paolo Mazzucchelli, the director for public transportation on Lake Maggiore, said that at the moment the accident took place, “wind speed had grown very quickly in a very short period of time” and that the storm was “localized and very intense.”
“They found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.