As flames engulfed a cathedral chapel in the early hours yesterday, Mario Trematore smashed his way through a bulletproof shield to snatch the silver casket storing the shroud to safety. "I found the strength in that symbol, the symbol of the shroud. Just think - that glass can withstand bullets, but I managed, somehow, to break it all the same. It's almost a miracle," said 44-year-old Mr Trematore.
The mysterious shroud, which bears the ghostly imprint of a man, is revered by many Roman Catholics as Christ's burial cloth, although scientists dispute its authenticity and say it only dates back to the Middle Ages.
The fireman, who was later treated in hospital for cuts and bruises, said the impulse to risk life and limb to save the casket came when he realised the Guarini chapel, built in the 17th century as a permanent home for the cloth, appeared to be on the verge of collapse. "All appeared to be lost. Pieces of the Guarini chapel were crashing down and there was a serious danger that it would bury everything - the casket, the altar and all of us," he said.
A large crowd had gathered outside the Renaissance cathedral in the heart of the city to watch the inferno, which sent flames into the night sky and started to spread to the adjoining palace. Mr Trematore grabbed the silver box with both hands and ran out of the chapel, blood streaming down his face, and was met by a group of priests who were weeping uncontrollably.
Police took the casket and a loud cheer went up among the crowd of onlookers. A police car sped off with the casket to take it to Cardinal Saldarini's residence for safekeeping.
"We are practically certain that the shroud did not suffer any damage," said Turin's fire chief, Michele Ferraro. "We do not think any water could have seeped into the box."
The fire, which took almost seven hours to put out, caused no injuries but inflicted major damage on the cathedral.
Deputy Prime Minister Walter Veltroni said after visiting the scene that initial information did not point to an arson attack, but Mr Ferraro said nothing was ruled out at this stage. "Nobody is making any assumptions. We have to examine the scene today and tomorrow."