Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Longarone disaster

In the morning, downstairs, in the 'bar' portion of the restaurant, the nice proprietor, steamed some milk for me and made me hot chocolate. Italians generally only have a light breakfast of a croissant or bakery item and coffee or hot milk. The proprietor also prepared two prosciutto panini (ham sandwiches) for Leo and me to take with us, for lunch.

In Italy a 'bar' is not a 'bar' in the American sense. It's a place where one can get cappuccino, pastries, hot chocolate, water or an alcoholic beverage. Often a 'bar' is attached to a restaurant and serves simple sandwiches and snack food when the restaurant is closed.

For an hour, Leo and his colleagues had their materials spread out to discuss their work strategy for the day. The team consisted of four technical people from Leo's office and another group from an outside vendor. I tried to stay invisible but observant, as I always am.

Around 9 am, we all drove to the offices of the Comune where the project business was conducted.

Before lunch, Leo drove me to the Longarone cemetery. It was there that I really understood the full magnitude of the 1963 disaster. I saw graves of entire families. I saw that 350 families had been entirely obliterated.

This is what happened, as told to me by Leo. I also later watched the 2001 film "Vajont, La diga del disonore" to better understand, even though Leo warned me, it would be a heart breaking experience.

The village of Longarone was scattered in the Piave Valley. The town is enclosed by a tall brushy slope/hill to its backside and a mountain range with Monte Toc to its front side. A small river runs down the center of the valley.

In 1959 the Vajoint dam was built at the top of Monte Toc. The dam, when filled, was planned to create a nice artificial lake area and transform the village of Casso into a waterfront resort.

A structurally sound dam was built and completed in 1961. There had been some testing on the dam and pressure had been released as engineers on site conducted tests. Concern about the possibility of land slippage had been debated. Villagers in the Longarone area had been feeling earthquakes in the months before October 1963.

On 9 October 1963 at approximately 10:35pm, while the engineers were on site, suddenly the side of the Monte Toc slipped into the lake behind the dam.

The force of the slippage of the side of Monte Toc caused several things to happen, simultaneously. A strong wind burst into the valley below. A huge wave bounced up and over the small town of Casso. The 250-metre (820 feet) high wave then continued to fall over the top of the dam. All of the basin water was displaced by the falling earth and fell onto Longarone. Note that an American football field is 110 meters (360 feet) in length. A total of 50 million cubic meters of water! Damage was also caused by the air displacement caused by the gigantic splash.

That night, almost 2000 people were killed within moments.

Leo took me to the new Longarone town church, where artifacts from the disaster are on display. A broken statue of Mary indicates the force which was unleashed that night. Mary, as well as other victims were washed far away in a sea of water and mud. This statue of Mary was retrieved in the waters near Venice, 100 km (62 miles) to the south.

Leo drove me up to the Vaiont Dam. There is no water behind the dam now but instead it appears that the mountain moved right into the basin of the dam.

According to Leo, the little town of Casso never fully recovered from its losses. The village appears to be quiet normal and quaint, until one realizes that many of the homes are missing their roofs.

We parked the car in Casso and bought bottled water from a small market. Leo and I followed the foot path toward the top of a hill, eating our lunch halfway, seated on the path's low stone wall. When we reached the mountaintop, we had a full view of the valley below. We stood silently, imagining what it might have looked like that terrible night.

I asked Leo about the Innkeeper and his wife. Had they lost family too? "Yes," he answered. "Did you notice the family pictures on the wall last night, in the restaurant? Everyone in this valley lost someone."

It was a sobering day, feeling the spirits of 2000 lost ones and the courage and determination of those left behind.


"On September 17, 1963 the engineers turned off the incoming water for seven days. Even though the water level remained the same, Mount Toc continued to slide. The water level inside Mount Toc was the same level as the water in the reservoir. The mountain had become inert, without water resistance, just like at Pontesei (see above). Removal of water would be catastrophic and leaving it there would be catastrophic. None of this information was provided to the residents of the towns in the Piave Valley. Instead, Biadene left for Venice and wrote a letter to Penta in Rome that said: "May God grant us good fortune." (p. 87)

The police were instructed to notify all people in Erto to remain alert. When the peasants asked, alert to what?, they were told nothing was wrong, but to sleep with one eye open. Then roadblocks on the state highway were placed, according to Paolini, "apparently so as not to disturb the landslide". At 10:39 p.m., "[t]he last thread of the spider web holding the massive rock to the rest of the mountain [broke]." Not everyone in Erto was killed by the tsunami wave that moved upstream (residents of Casso were spared). Downstream in Longarone, however, people, who had received no warning or instructions to evacuate, were taken by surprise. A roaring wind that preceded the foul-smelling water-wall killed almost everyone. The wind supposedly had a force or pressure two times the bombs dropped on Hiroshima. (p. 94) People's clothes and skin were blown off and their internal organs blasted to death. What the wind didn't destroy, the water did. It sloshed against one side of the Piave Valley and then the other and back and forth until it was able to make its way downriver, like a mouse in a snake's gullet. The water-wall scoured and flattened everything (see photo)."

Quote from a Longarone survivor:

«I was awakened by a noise similar to that of jet planes very near. A great wind entered my house, smashing in doors and windows, blowing everything away. Then I saw a thick haze preceding a huge wave of water which splashed my house, carrying away my neighbor's. I thought it was a tidal wave coming out of nowhere» (Besson, 1966: 24)

"In Longarone alone, 1,269 out of 1,348 persons known to be in the town at the time, were killed. At least 158 died in Erto and Casso, villages located on the reservoir. A minimum of 569 other persons in other localities in the comune were also fatal casualties."

"For a radius of almost two miles across and about four miles up and down the valley, the destruction was all but total. Even six days after the impact it was difficult to find any physical sign or feature that a community once existed on what now had the appearance of a very wide but dry river bed, rusty covered with small, round pebbles. The chief exception to this was a handful of only slightly water-damaged houses at the northwestern edge of the devastated, but razed area. This was the tiny section of Longarone on which the mass of water did not land, in part because it was somewhat up the slope. In this cluster of houses, including the town hall, lived most of the 79 inhabitants of Longarone who were not casualties of the disaster."

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