The mysterious and tragic death of Francesco “Chi-Chi” Bellafante

committed — “the beginning of the end of suicide”
the brand new greatest story ever told — part 3

Chi-Chi was born in the seaside town of Francavilla al Mare, Italy in 1900 and began working in pyrotechnics when he was sixteen. By his thirty-sixth birthday he’d become a skilled craftsman in the art of manufacturing and setting off spectacular displays of explosive flying projectiles, better known as fireworks. The lure of opportunity across the Atlantic fueled his growing desire to leave Europe, find a wife and emigrate to America. He was fond of the eldest daughter of Angelo Mancinelli, a tax collector who lived a few miles South in Canosa Sannita, but she was unimpressed with his proposal of marriage and the idea of starting a family in the United States. Teresa wasn’t interested in trading her life of relative ease and comfort in the small town near the Adriatic for an uncertain future with a man she barely knew, in a country where she didn’t speak the language. Fortunately for Francesco, my paternal grandfather-to-be and namesake, Teresa’s younger sister Emma was fond of the young pyrotechnician, and she possessed a degree of wanderlust that her older sister did not. Emma and Francesco were married, and then Francesco made his way to America in advance of his new wife, to find work and a place to live. Upon his arrival at Ellis Island he American-ized his first name to ‘Frank’ as was the custom for many European immigrants with foreign-sounding names who were intent on finding success in their new, adopted homeland. He traveled to Boston where relatives helped him find a job at a local fireworks manufacturer. He found an apartment in Randolph, a suburb of Boston, and sent word to Emma. Shortly thereafter she arrived in the States, and the newlyweds began their new life together in America. The year was 1937.

Within a year and a half, Emma gave birth to their first child, a boy that they named Franco, my father-to-be. In 1940, my grandfather’s employer went out of business, and Francesco had difficulty finding work, so he relocated the family South to Wilmington, Delaware. The family grew over the next several years. Emma gave birth to two more children, both girls, Isabella and Susanna. By the late 40’s my grandfather had saved enough money to become a homeowner, and move the family out of their one bedroom apartment and into a two-story duplex with three bedrooms — a tangible piece of the American dream.

Emma had never been particularly happy about her husband’s chosen occupation due to the dangers inherent in working with explosives. Having three children to care for only added to her consternation. In the summer of 1950, concerned for her husband’s safety, she pleaded with Francesco, imploring him to stop working with fireworks. Emma wanted her husband to find a job where he wasn’t one mishap away from the unthinkable happening. He wasn’t particularly receptive to the idea. Francesco was fifty years old and an expert in his field. He made a decent wage; plus, he enjoyed the work. Emma persisted. Nicholas Salvatore, her next door neighbor while growing up in Canosa Sannita, had also left Italy and settled in Wilmington. Emma convinced Nicholas to offer her husband a job as an apprentice butcher, but Francesco didn’t take it. He had little desire to start over in a new profession.

Unfortunately, Emma’s fears turned out to be eerily prophetic, when less than two years later, the unthinkable actually happened. The death of my namesake was a front-page story in the local newspaper three days after Christmas in 1951.
I was thirty-three years old when I visited the library in the city of Wilmington to search for the microfilm containing the news story about his demise.FrancescoKilled1The headline read: Workman Killed by Blast In Elkton Defense Plant. Defense plant? I thought when I read it. That was news to me, as I had always thought my grandfather died making fireworks, not explosives for a war. I knew the name of the company where he worked, Crown Fireworks & Display Company, but my father had never mentioned anything about it being a defense contractor. The few details about my grandfather’s life that I did know came from the handful of stories my father told about him. My father described how Francesco had a daily routine during the workweek that rarely varied. He would wake very early each morning, and leave the house by five o’clock so that he’d have enough time to walk the three and a half miles to the train station, in order to arrive on time for work in Elkton. He would return home around seven o’clock, take a quick nap and then eat dinner. After that my father would sit with his dad as he did “piece-work” to supplement his income. Francesco assembled fireworks fuses for a penny apiece. My father would keep a running count of how many fuses his father had made. During the summer months, part of Francesco’s job included setting off fireworks at Woodside Amusement Park every Friday in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. There were rides and food and games and prizes and moving picture shows. The fireworks display was the culmination of the evening’s festivities. Each week, Francesco would pick up my father from home in a company truck and head North to Philadelphia. Franco would take in a Hop-a-long Cassidy picture show while his father was busy setting up. After dusk, exploding projectiles composed of combustible chemical compounds lit up the night sky as the crowd gathered would ooh and ahh. Afterwards my father helped clean up and load the truck.

The story my father tells about the day his mother’s worst fears were realized is a short, sad one. He was on the sidewalk across the street from his house talking with a grade school friend when he heard his mother screaming his name, “Franco! Franco, where are you?! Franco!” Not surprisingly he has a flashbulb-memory of the moment that he learned that his life would be forever altered. It was more than three decades after my grandfather’s passing when my father retold the story of that day, in detail, to the whole family over dinner. “I can still see her standing on the porch screaming. She was hysterical; she had this frantic look in her eyes. The sound of her cries gave me chills. I knew the moment I saw her. I knew something terrible had happened; I knew something had happened to my father,” he said. My grandmother told my father there had been an accident at work and that Francesco was in the hospital. Franco stayed at home to watch his two younger sisters while Emma made her way to the hospital as quickly as possible. Francesco was still alive when she arrived, but he had first, second and third degree burns over most of his body, and died within a few hours. She returned home that night to give her children the dreadful news. Over the span of a single afternoon, my father had become the “man of the house.” He was thirteen years old.

Little was known about the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s death. My father knew that there had been a large explosion followed by a fire, and that his father had been the only fatality. He was adamant about wanting to discover precisely what had gone wrong that day, but he was never able to discover the truth. Although he has never said precisely why, my father has always had the feeling that his father’s co-workers knew more than what they said about what had happened that fateful day. I can understand his curiosity. Had his father made a mistake that led to his own death? Or had someone else made a mistake? Or maybe it was a situation where his father saw something about to go terribly wrong, and he was trying to prevent it. The answers to these questions seemed unknowable. The truth of what happened apparently lost in the same fire that cut short my grandfather’s life.

The microfilm article I’d found contained another revelation about the circumstances surrounding the blast that day. The sub-headline read: Wilmington Man Fatally Burned, Another Injured by Mystery Explosion That Destroys 2 Company Buildings. That someone else had been injured that day was news to me as well. More from the article itself:

Frank Bellafante, 51, of 611 Concord Avenue, Wilmington, died at 8 o’clock tonight in Elkton’s Union Hospital of first, second and third degree burns of the entire body. A fellow workman, Lee Hill, 18, of Elkton, was treated at the hospital for minor burns. A third man in the immediate vicinity of the explosion escaped injury.

After I shared these details with my father, he said that he had never heard of Lee Hill, and he hadn’t known that anyone else had been injured that day. It was 2004 when I discovered this article; fifty-three years after the story it told. Lee Hill was only eighteen years old when this happened. There was a chance he might still be alive. And even if he was deceased, if he had any children, the story they may have been told about that day might have included more information about the explosion than the version I knew. Maybe the truth wasn’t irrevocably lost. A few other details from the article painted at least a vague picture of the scene of the blast that took my namesake’s life:

Authorities said the building in which the blast occurred was completely destroyed, as well as an adjacent building. No definite cause of the explosion could be established, but one source reported that the three workmen were engaged in loading explosives on a truck when the accident occurred. The blast was heard two miles away.

It’s a wonder my grandfather even made it to the hospital alive, I thought. The revelation that he was making munitions for the war in Korea as opposed to making fireworks is hardly surprising. Money talks, and it’s not hard to imagine that fulfilling defense contracts for the war would be more lucrative than manufacturing fireworks for entertainment purposes. This relatively minor revision to the personal history of my grandfather had more than a minor impact on me when I learned of it. My grandfather had left Italy as fascism was on the rise there and in Germany leading up to World War II. He had aspired to make his living as a pyrotechnician, and to raise a family in America. That he perished while handling munitions bound for a different war, half a world away in Southeast Asia, gave me pause. Of course without more information, I can’t know for sure that my grandfather’s death was specifically attributable to the fact that he was working with munitions instead of fireworks. Before reading the article about the day my grandfather died, I used to have a somewhat romanticized view of my grandfather’s life and death. Most likely due to projecting desires about myself onto my grandfather’s life, I had always viewed fireworks as a sort of pyrotechnical art form, and him therefore, as an artist. One who painted the night skies with sensational, dazzling displays of exploding light and color. In my idealized view of him, his refusal of my grandmother’s pleas to find work in a safer occupation was an artist refusing to give up his art despite the dangers inherent in creating it. In the story I subconsciously told myself about my namesake, Francesco Bellafante was a passionate, adventurous artist who had traveled to a new world to practice his art, and who died doing what he loved. In this fantastical story born in my imagination, his death was some kind of noble, mythical martyrdom in the name of art. Learning that he died making bombs to be dropped on people halfway around the world instead, helped shatter my fanciful notions about his death. Clearly my grandfather’s death was a profound tragedy that caused immense amounts of pain and suffering for his family. And it would have been no less tragic had he been loading that truck with a batch of shells for the celebration of the upcoming New Year.

What I have never had a single fanciful notion about was what life was like for the Bellafante family after my grandfather’s death. In the immediate aftermath of his passing my grandmother became literally sick with grief. She was so hysterically despondent that she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for five weeks. Four-year-old Susanna was sent to Boston to stay with relatives. Nine-year-old Isabella stayed with friends of the family in the neighborhood, while my father, the thirteen-year-old man of the house stayed at home, alone. What had been a family of five, living a relatively happy life just two days after celebrating Christmas together, was transformed, in an instant, by a mysterious explosion, into a grieving widow in a mental ward with three, young, fatherless children with shattered lives. That is the inescapably sad truth about what happened that day, regardless of how or why it happened.

The deeper truth that I saw more clearly after reading and fully digesting the article about my grandfather’s violent, tragic end was one that I had always known was there. The experience left me with a deeper appreciation for the reason behind why I had previously had a tendency to think of my grandfather’s death in a romanticized way. It wasn’t because I was named after the man, nor was it because of my own desire to make a living as an artist instead of as some sort of business professional. Nor was it because I had never met him or knew very little about him. The reason, in fact, was quite simple and rather obvious actually: I was scared to death of death.