ROME — Running late for a news conference on Tuesday morning, I decided not to wait for the No. 63 bus that I usually take to work in the center of Rome and called a cab instead. As the taxi driver told me that he couldn’t wait to retire because of all the traffic and potholes, and as we approached the area around Parliament, a tremendous boom shook the street. The driver slammed on the brakes and I ducked behind the seat.
“Is that an attack?” he asked nervously as we watched a plume of black smoke rise a couple hundred yards in front of us.
No, it was not an attack, to be blamed on saboteurs, terrorists or anarchists, but ATAC, the city’s own transportation service, which has a record of buses short-circuiting and bursting into flames on the city’s streets. Romans, long used to waiting for buses that never come, have now gotten used to ones that burst into flames.
ATAC does not give estimates of the number of its vehicles that have caught fire, probably with good reason. The news media reported more than 20 cases of buses catching fire in Rome last year. Later on Tuesday, a probable technical failure caused a second bus to catch fire on the outskirts of Rome. That brought this year’s total to 10, according to press estimates. And it is only May.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported from the bus fires so far this year. One shopkeeper, who was in her shop in front of the burning bus I witnessed, was lightly injured. “Breaking News: ATAC claims responsibility for the attack in Rome,” read a meme that spread around the internet, showing the bus engulfed in flames.
“Rome Burns,” read a headline on the front page of the city’s paper, Il Messaggero. The Italian web filled with images of the city’s embattled mayor, Virginia Raggi of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, fiddling like Nero on a harp as the city, or its buses, burned.
Another paper, Il Foglio, noted that while tourists had panicked about terrorism, Romans had reassured them. The headline was “ATAC Akbar!”
“Rome is the only capital in the world where you see a bus in flames in the city center,” the paper’s editorial read, “a ten-meter high smoke chain, people running away, explosion, police and firefighters’ sirens, and nobody thinks of ISIS, but ATAC.”
It was no accident that my first