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Cauldron keepers tend Olympic fire

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TURIN, Feb 26: The keepers of the flame live in a hole and survive on cold cereal, crackers and baked beans.

Federico Fiorini pressed the green button that ignited the Olympic cauldron at the start of the Turin Games. Today he will pull the bright yellow lever to snuff out the flame.

He and two colleagues have lived 10 feet underground to make sure the fire stays alit over Turin's skyline and on television sets around the world.

From offstage they play main roles in the ceremonies that opened and will close the Games before billions of TV viewers.

''Even if we're in a hole,'' Fiorini quipped during a visit to his damp digs.

The Olympic flame -- representing the sacred fire that Prometheus stole from the gods and gave to man -- burns atop a 20-storey-tall tangle of tubes that looks more giant cigarette than cauldron.

It is a far cry from the 1996 structure in Atlanta which some likened to a serving of McDonald's french fries.

Designed by Pininfarina, the firm that also sketched the Olympic torch, Turin's tower will remain as a symbol of the 20th Winter Games. But after today it will never again burn.

'PRETTY EASY SYSTEM'

Fiorini and two colleagues from Horizon Three Industries monitor the gas that arrives in four thick pipes from the city's supply. It is then fed into 12 ducts that feed the flame at the tips of five twisting tubes and a sixth straight one.

Two control panels, each as big as a country manor's cupboard, house switches and computers that regulate the flame.

''Just like NASA,'' said Matt Lenz, sitting near the base of the beige tower that resembles a missile shaft.

Although the automatic valve system cost some 600,000 euros (715,000 dollars) and the tubes can handle up to 8,000 cubic metres of gas per hour, Fiorini and Lenz are unimpressed.

''It's not a very big project for us,'' said Lenz.

That is just as well -- so far Turin has been able to avoid the fate of Salt Lake City, where the flame went dead for several hours during the 2002 Games.

With a push of a button on February 10, Fiorini lit the flame about five seconds after Italian former cross country skier Stefania Belmondo set off a string of fireworks inside the adjacent Olympic stadium.

He took his cue from a show call piped into the cinderblock bunker over a speaker near a box of Special K cereal.

Today he will close three of four gas tubes, wait five minutes, then on cue just after 0000 hrs IST slowly pull a fourth lever to extinguish the flame.

''It's a pretty easy system,'' said Fiorini, who dismisses any suggestion he might be a bit nervous.

Above ground, Turin residents mix with foreigners taking pictures of the cauldron. They shrug off environmentalists' charges the flame is a waste of gas and money.

''Before, Turin was known only for Fiat and was considered a little Detroit,'' said Dino Savioli, a 50-year-old engineering professor from Turin. ''Now it is known throughout the world.''

REUTERS

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