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Racing Toward a Miracle : Italy's Nannini Making a Steady Recovery From Helicopter Crash That Severed an Arm

June 21, 1991|KEN SHULMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Writer Ken Shulman is based in Florence, Italy

IMOLA, Italy — The hand is not totally inert, although even an untrained eye can recognize the signs of atrophy. At best, it resembles a branch that may or may not have been grafted in time, the fingers withered and slightly shrunken.

With great effort, 31-year-old Italian Formula One driver Alessandro Nannini can produce a barely perceptible twitch in his fingertips. He explains that the circulation is sufficient, and that the nerves are growing back at a rate of a millimeter a day. Too slow for a man used to tearing along the track at more than 160 m.p.h.

"I still can't feel anything above the wrist," he says, pinching at the base of his thumb to illustrate. "There's no (sensitivity)."

It is more than six months since Nannini's right forearm was severed in a helicopter accident near his Siena home, and seven since last year's Grand Prix in Jerez, Spain, Nannini's last race. Today, Nannini has come to the Benetton trailer in the paddock of the Imola track to wish his former racing team luck during the time trials for the next day's Grand Prix. It is his first visit to a race course since the accident.

"It's strange to be here as a visitor," says Nannini, who finished third at Imola the past two years. "The scene is still the same, the same crowds, the same chaos. It made me happy when I heard the sound of motors revving. I heard it while we were walking up from the parking lot. With that, and the smell of the exhaust, and the rain, it makes me realize how much I miss all of this."

Alessandro Nannini was not Italy's most successful driver, but he was and remains the country's favorite. He is the youngest of three children in a widely known Siena family. Nannini's father runs the family's industrial bakery best known for its traditional Siennese \o7 panforte \f7 dessert, and his older sister Gianna is the popular rock star who sang the "Un Estate Italiana" theme song for last summer's Italia '90 Soccer World Cup.

Alessandro made his Formula One debut in 1986 with the Minardi team after having raced go-karts, motorcycles, and rally cars. On the track, he won hearts with his all-out, fearless style. In person, he earned respect for his honesty, and his well-honed Tuscan wit.

"What was I thinking?" he said after the 1989 trials at Hockenheim, Germany, miraculously unscathed after he and his Benetton car had flown off the course, spun through the air, and crashed into a guardrail.

"Once I realized that I'd left the ground, I said to myself, 'Well, you've got to come down sometime.' I didn't recall hearing that they'd annulled the law of gravity."

Last Oct. 12, on its maiden voyage from Florence's Peretola airport, Alessandro's brand-new French 'Ecureuil' helicopter crashed in a field a few hundred yards from the Nannini family's Belriguardo villa. Nannini had wanted to show his "new toy" to his parents before leaving for Tokyo, where he had won his first Grand Prix race the previous year.

A farmer working in a nearby vineyard said that the aircraft touched down, shot back up 25 yards into the air, then plummeted to the ground. As were the pilot and his two friends on board, Nannini was hurled out of the cabin. During his fall, the helicopter's rotor blade cut off his right arm just below the elbow.

Nannini's family arrived on the scene at 2:30 p.m., a few minutes after the crash. They found him still conscious, screaming: "The hand! The hand! Give me back my hand!"

Alessandro's wife, Paola, fainted. His father, who also had raced cars in his youth, tied his belt around Alessandro's arm to stop the bleeding, then searched for, and found, his son's severed arm among the wreckage.

With his forearm packed in a refrigerated aluminum container, Italy's most popular race driver was taken by ambulance to the Tuscan Trauma Center in Florence. The waiting room and lobby were packed with friends, family, and journalists. A throng of fans crowded outside in the parking lot. At 6 p.m., Nannini went into surgery. He came out at 4 in the morning.

The accident and tragedy echoed far beyond the Formula One circuit. Italians who had never followed the sport were moved by the story and sight of the Nannini family pulling together to confront their tragedy. While Alessandro's parents, brother, and close friends paced in the waiting room--their anxious vigil lasted nearly 48 hours--the country suffered along with them.

In the recovery room, Alessandro slipped into and out of consciousness.

"I won't race again," a nurse heard him murmur. "I'll go on vacation."

The day after the accident, Nannini's sister Gianna arrived from Berlin, interrupting a European tour. For once out of patience, she shoved past the hundreds of teen-age fans mobbing the hospital entrance. Alessandro is her favorite brother, and her only thought was to reach him.

"Knock it off," she told him, when he started to moan about the pain. "It happened to me as well. Remember when I lost two fingers in the dough kneader? It hurts for a while. And then it goes away."

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