Claudio Lavanga / NBC News
Workers cover 2,000-year-old graffiti in Pompeii with Plexiglas on Tuesday.
Published at 8:23 a.m. ET: POMPEII, Italy -- On Tuesday evening, the sound of a pneumatic drill broke the silence that has been part of Pompeii's character since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city in 79 A.D.
Three workers cut holes in one of the city's historic walls, attached mounts with concrete and fixed a Plexiglas cover to protect 2,000-year-old graffiti.
"Sorry we don't have hard hats on," the men said, as if not following safety standards was the only thing wrong with their supposed preservation work. In fact, according to experts, the workmen were defacing priceless antiquities.
"Oh my god, look at them. Do you see an archaeologist around?" said Dario Sautto, a member of Italy's Cultural Heritage Observatory who witnessed the work.
In Pompeii, it's a race against time to preserve what's left of this ancient site, before it becomes history. NBC News Correspondent Claudio Lavanga reports.
As is so often the case with the preservation of Pompeii, the cure appears to be worse than the disease, he said.
"Those men are bricklayers, without a qualified supervisor in sight," he added. "They are just patching things up ahead of the visit of the [European Union] commissioner."
Indeed, on Wednesday, Johannes Hahn, regional affairs commissioner for the European Union (EU), was surveying Pompeii and discussing the start of the Great Pompeii Project, a multimillion-dollar plan to revamp and secure the decaying archaeological site -- and stop patch-up jobs like the one Sautto had just witnessed.
Pompeii, an ancient city blanketed by 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice after Vesuvius erupted almost 2,000 years ago, is just one of thousands of Italian sites that have attracted tourists and archaeologists alike for hundreds of years. And for decades it has symbolized the failings of the Italian state in preserving its rich historical, cultural and archaeological heritage.
In 2010, one stone too many crumbled -- the famous House of Gladiators, used for training before fights in the nearby amphitheater, collapsed into a pile of rubble. The world's archaeological community cringed, and so did the EU.
So the EU pledged to spend 105 million euros (about $142 million) to make sure that interventions like the one witnessed Tuesday become a thing of the past.
The project consists of "using some of the most sophisticated and up-to-date technology to preserve the ruins of the site, which has been badly damaged in recent years," the EU said Tuesday.
Franco Origlia / Getty Images, file
The House of the Gladiators was cordoned off after its collapse in 2010, drawing attention to the fragile state of Pompeii.
Despite 2.3 million tourists visiting the ruins of Pompeii every year, the site has slowly been falling into decay due to mismanagement, corruption and the influence of the "Camorra," the local mafia.
Millions of dollars have been spent in the past to try to prevent the UNESCO World Heritage Site falling into disarray, but every attempt to turn the ancient site into a truly modern tourist attraction has gone up in smoke.
On Tuesday, Annamaria Caccavo, a businesswoman who won a multimillion-dollar restoration tender to work on Pompeii, was placed under house arrest on charges of aiding abuse of office, corrupting a public official and fraud.
"The problem with Pompeii is that they always treat its preservation like an emergency," Sautto said. "But the emergency started in 79 A.D., not today. And still they can't figure out how to save it."
Caccavo's arrest, which came a day before the EU officially stepped in to straighten up the ruins' management, sent a signal that legality and transparency will play a major role in the new regime.
Pompeii has never been famous for its preservation, and pieces fall off its ruins regularly. Only 30 percent of the site is open to the public, with restoration works frozen in time, just like the casts of its citizens who died when Vesuvius erupted. Guards around the site are outnumbered by stray dogs, and public toilets are a lucky find in the maze of ruins.
The EU's Hahn said he took more than a professional interest in helping ensure the protection of Pompeii's treasures.
"I have taken a great personal interest in getting this project off the ground ever since I heard about the collapse of the House of the Gladiators in November 2010, when I happened to be in Rome," he said. "Here is a chance not just to help save something which is part of Europe's cultural identity but to revitalize (the regional) economy by attracting more visitors and creating new jobs."
In Pompeii, it's a race against time to preserve what's left of this ancient site, before it becomes history.