By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng.
Sans armes. Sans haine. Sans violence. With a flourish worthy of the sword of Zorro, Albert Spaggiari, mastermind of the greatest bank robbery in the history of France, signed his work in spray paint ...
Sans armes. Sans haine. Sans violence. With a flourish worthy of the sword of Zorro, Albert Spaggiari, mastermind of the greatest bank robbery in the history of France, signed his work in spray paint on the walls of the empty bank vault in Nice on July 14, Bastille Day, in 1976. He and his confederates made off with $12 million in cash, gold and jewelry. The man responsible might have been a criminal, but he was also a project manager extraordinaire, with an engineering mind by nature, though thankfully not one by profession.
Spaggiari and his crew pulled off the heist of the century by tunneling through 18 metres of earth and rock to reach the walls of the fortified bank vault via the sewer system. As engineering projects go, the tunneling operation would have been routine were it not for the key constraint — avoiding detection. The job called for ingenuity, the ability to think fast, to cope with the unexpected, and excellent team management skills. Avoiding detection meant no suspicious noise, no visible rubble, no noticeable signs of activity.
Also, there was no budget.
The mastermind behind the project was an ex-paratrooper working as a wedding photographer in Nice. While scanning some plans, Spaggiari noticed that the sewers under the city ran within a short distance of the Socit Gnrale, the bank of choice for Nice’s rich and famous, of which there were plenty. The bank reputedly held more riches than the five top Parisian banks combined.
But how to reach those riches? He explored the complex underground network of sewers. He consulted city plans. He explored the construction of the bank and its vault. The fortified structure had walls over a metre thick and steel doors 500 mm thick. He tested the security system by taking a safety deposit box under a false name and setting off an extremely loud alarm clock in it. No police came running. The bank didn’t have a sophisticated security system precisely because the structure was supposed to be untouchable.
He assembled a team of ex-paratroopers, mobsters and tunneling experts. The venture took two years of meticulous planning and execution. Equipment and tools were stolen from construction sites in the surrounding area. Power was stolen from a light fixture in a parking lot nearby. They acquired materials to shore up the tunnel and ventilation equipment to keep the air moving.
By hand or by power tool, the work was grueling. Spaggiari had the men work in shifts on alternate nights. No alcohol or caffeine were allowed and they had to have at least 10 hours of sleep before each shift. The work progressed at the rate of six inches per night, chipping away at earth and rock that stood between them and the vault. They dispersed the rubble in surrounding tunnels and, at the end of each shift, bricked up the sewer wall so that city workers would not notice anything amiss.
It took them two months to reach the vault, ahead of their schedule. They waited for the July 14 holiday before attempting the final assault. After some last minute hitches they were in. This called for a celebration. In true French style, wine corks popped, glasses clinked, the wine washing down fine food. All arranged by the master team manager himself.
A severe storm was approaching Nice, threatening to fill the sewers with stormwater, cutting off their retreat. It was time to go. Spaggiari took a moment to boast of his accomplishment with spray paint: “Without arms, without hate, without violence.”
Also without punishment. Some of Spaggiari’s gang were captured but he managed to evade the police until bragging got the better of him. Even then, he managed to escape from prison before trial and remained at large until he was delivered many years later to his mother’s house to die.
Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is an editorial advisor to Canadian Consulting Engineer.