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Hazy Smoke Signal Stirs Confusion

A priests celebrates as white smoke billows from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Tuesday, April 19, 2005. White smoke indicates that the 265th Pope has been elected. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
AP
There was an agonizing wait as the smoke went up and it appeared to be white — but nobody was sure. Then the bells began to toll and people screamed in joy, "long live the pope!"

For the tens of thousands of people packed St. Peter's Square on Tuesday for a second day to watch the narrow chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, it was an agonizing 15 minutes of uncertainty. People said "white," and "black," then some began to chant "it's white, it's white," and a group of Brazilians started jumping up and down, pushing their fists in the air.

"Habemus papam, habemus papam," said Daomario Barbalho, 26, from Natal, Brazil.

As the minutes ticked by the uncertainly grew, and at 5:55 p.m. Amy Turnipseed, 21, an American, said: "It looks really white, but I'm not sure."

There was a brief flutter when the bells rang at 6 p.m., but the cheers died down when they stopped ringing. Minutes later, they began in earnest and the crowd erupted.

Black smoke means an unsuccessful round of balloting; white smoke — accompanied by the ringing of bells — means there is a new pontiff.

On Tuesday morning, there was confusion when black smoke first rose. Many in the crowd flipped open cell phones to pass on the news that there was still no new pope.

But minutes later, the church bells began ringing, and another cloud of smoke began to rise. People who had been leaving the square rushed back to the front, many frantically asking their neighbors: "Bianco?" — "White?"

It soon became clear that the smoke was indeed black, and that the bells were simply ringing the 12th hour.

A murmur of disappointment spread through the crowd in a Babel of tongues — "nero," "schwarz," "black" — after cardinals concluded their third vote on a successor to Pope John Paul II.

Tens of thousands of people packed St. Peter's Square from early morning for a second day to watch the narrow chimney.

The gathering of faithful was remarkable for its international flavor. Asians, Africans, Americans, Australians and Europeans all gathered together on the cobblestoned square to watch the stovepipe for a sign that a new pope had been chosen.

Teenagers did homework; monks leafed through the Bible. Nuns sang hymns and a priest typed intently on his laptop.

After the second confusing smoke signal on Tuesday morning, some of the pilgrims were annoyed.

It's unclear when the tradition began, but smoke signals have been used continuously since at least 1878.

There is little record of color confusion until the 1958 conclave, when the damp straw that the cardinals had added to their burning ballots apparently failed to catch, and the initial smoke was white.

The Vatican said after Pope John Paul II's death that special chemicals would be added to help avoid confusion.