GIOIA TAURO, Italy – The world might be a little bit safer now that more than 500 tons of deadly Syrian chemical weapons are moving onto an American ship to be destroyed, but some living near the delicate transfer don’t feel that way.
"I am scared. The last time I was this afraid was during World War II - and I was 11," said Maria Pantano, who lives in a town next to the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. "I am not scared for me – I am an old lady – I'm afraid for young people living here. My two sons live up north...I hope today won’t be the last day I speak to them."
The 84-year-old resident of San Ferdinando has reason to be nervous.
“They picked our port without even asking.”
Danish vessel Ark Futura docked in the southern region of Calabria early on Wednesday laden with deadly mustard gas and a precursor of the nerve agent sarin. Local police closed roads around the port to create an exclusion zone near the transfer of the dangerous chemicals removed from Syria.
The toxic load is supposed to contain the last and most dangerous chemicals turned over by Syria under a deal struck last summer by the United States and Russia following allegations that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad used them on civilians in an attack that left hundreds of people dead.
The chemicals stored in 78 containers are being slowly and carefully unloaded using cranes and then rolled on a forklift to the MV Cape Ray, a 648-foot cargo ship which has been turned into a floating chemical processing plant.
The transfer is expected to finish early Thursday. The Cape Ray will then set sail for international waters, where the chemicals will be neutralized by two machines designed to turn toxic weapons into industrial waste.
Thursday morning can't come soon enough for many San Ferdinando residents, including Domenico Madaferri, the town’s mayor.
“They picked our port without even asking,” he said. “They didn’t even tell me what kind of substances are there in those containers.”
Madaferri tried to reassure locals by hanging up posters explaining that the ship contains chemical substances, rather than weapons, and in a liquid - not gas - form. He even set up a room for residents to watch the transfer, but in the end the town was not given access.
"They didn't even allow us to watch the operation," he said. "It would have helped me to reassure the population. That's very disrespectful.”
It appears the only sight that will finally calm residents such as Pantano and Madafeeri down will be the Cape Ray leaving the port with its deadly cargo.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.