Europe

Italy Vajont anniversary: Night of the 'tsunami'

The Vajont dam is seen behind an old photo of Longarone, Italy, 26 September
Image caption The Vajont dam is seen here behind an old photo of Longarone

Fifty years ago Italians woke to news of a disaster of Biblical proportions. At a stroke - in an Alpine valley north of Venice - some 2,000 people had been killed, entire communities wiped off the face of the Earth. It was, according to the UN Scientific and Cultural agency Unesco, one of the worst man-made environmental disasters of all time.

The inscription on the little town's war memorial promises that the sacrifice of those who died fighting for their country will never be forgotten.

Look beyond it, east across the valley of the Piave, and you see a vast white dam, high up in the cleft of a narrow gorge, its concrete wall reflecting the rays of the setting sun. The dam is called Vajont. And it, too, is a memorial of sorts.

When built, it was the tallest dam of its kind in the world, harnessing the waters of a small mountain torrent to create a lake meant to generate hydroelectric power for northern Italy's postwar economic miracle. But the engineers and geologists had ignored the warnings of locals that the land was unstable and that their work had triggered worrying seismic movements.

Late on the evening of 9 October 1963, a vast chunk of the mountainside, the size of a small town and 400m (1,312ft) deep, sheared off.

Image caption The disused dam still stands above Longarone

Forty-five seconds later, travelling at 100km/h (62mph), it plunged into the new artificial lake, creating an inland tsunami that rose more than 200m above the dam before plunging headlong towards Longarone, directly in its path.

The wall of water pushed an air pocket before it. It was more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. So strong, in fact, that almost all the victims were found naked, their clothes blown off by the blast.

Grainy black and white footage from the next day shows a moonscape, a valley scoured clean of life. The survivors - the rescuers too - look tiny, dazed, insignificant.

The dam survived but 80% of the inhabitants of Longarone and its satellite villages did not. In all, almost 2,000 people are known to have died - but the final death toll will never be known.

Just 30 of Longarone's children lived. One of them was Micaela Colletti, 12 at the time. She lost her parents, a sister and her grandmother. They only ever identified her father. Today, she campaigns to preserve the memory of the victims and the lessons to be learnt.

The swallows swooped and screeched as Ms Colletti recalled the evening of 9 October: "My father returned home from work as normal but almost straightaway he left again in the car, which had never happened before.

Image caption Ms Colletti lost lost her parents, a sister and her grandmother

"Five minutes later I heard what I thought was a thunderclap. It was incredibly loud. My granny came into my room and said she was going to close all the shutters because a storm was coming.

"At exactly the same moment all the lights went out and I heard a sound, impossible to describe properly. The closest thing I've ever heard to it is the sound of metal shop shutters rolling down, crashing shut, but this was a million, a billion times worse.

"I felt my bed collapsing, as if there was a hole opening up beneath me and an irresistible force dragging me out. I couldn't do anything. I had no idea what was happening."

She was hurled more than 350m through the air and buried.

"When they pulled me out there was a popping sound, like when you open a bottle, and someone said 'We've found another old one'. I was just 12 but I was covered in mud and completely black and must have looked like an old woman.

"I remember I was on the shoulders of the only fireman from the town to survive and he kept stumbling over these bright, incredibly white, translucent rocks and I kept asking him to put me down, but he wouldn't.

"And there was this huge moon so close and so bright it scared me. I felt if I stretched out my hand I could touch it. I've never seen a moon like it, so close and so huge.

"Then they put me in a car and I heard someone crying and I suddenly realised it was me."

Image caption This composite photo taken in the hours after the disaster shows the flooded valley of the River Piave. The village of Longarone used to exist near the right of the picture. It was taken by the geologist Edoardo Semenza
Image caption Another composite photo taken by Semenza, and published in the book Le photo della frana del Vajont (K-flash), shows how the land slipped from the mountainside on the right into the lake behind the dam

We were walking down a rough track across the chunk of mountainside that had sheared off, down and into the lake. From afar - from the village of Casso hanging high above the dam on the other side of the valley - the scale of the landslide is mind-boggling.

The track led down, through rock and scrub, to the side of the dam, the sound of the torrent barely audible more than 200m below. Ms Colletti was talking about the daily struggle to make sense of her disaster.

Image caption Micaela Colletti was one of only 30 children to have survived the disaster

"Even if you leave, you take it with you," she said. "It's better to confront reality every day, because you need to make sense of it."

For six years after the disaster, she lived her own dream. She fell in love. Before she knew it she was married, became pregnant, and then, on 9 October 1969, six years to the day after the disaster, she lost the baby girl she had been expecting.

And at that moment, she said, she understood that she had to wake up: "I had a choice: either I killed myself because it was all too much or I lived day by day, one day at a time."

The simplest things still catch her out: the sight of a mother and daughter out shopping for clothes together, a mother with her daughter, dressed for her wedding.

"It's better to confront these little sadnesses," she said.

"Because sooner or later these things will arrive and if you've tried to hide from them the blow is even harder. If you don't have the moral courage to look fino in fondo -- into the depths - you learn nothing.

"How can you teach anyone else anything if you don't know yourself?"

Fifty years on, another reality is encroaching. Renato Migotti is an architect. He, too, survived the disaster while most of his schoolmates did not.

He said it was time to pass the responsibility for maintaining the memory of Vajont to the next generation.

Image caption The village of Longarone, as seen here from the dam, has been rebuilt

"Our testimony has to pass to our children and grandchildren, so that they can carry on the memory of Vajont even when we are no longer here," he said.

"Together we have to begin the process of transforming our personal testimony into lasting history."

Alessio Riccardo is 25, a member of that next generation.

"Physically, Longarone has been rebuilt," he said.

"But the society, the community has not been completely built. People who were here before 1963 think that anyone who arrived here after the tragedy is a stranger, a foreigner. This is a type of thinking that we must change."

It was not hard to spot the headstone of Ms Colletti's father in the cemetery at Fortogna where the victims of the disaster are buried.

Flowers are banned here, photographs too, but the headstone bearing the name of her father defiantly bears a battered picture of him as she likes to remember him: dashing, debonair, a cigarette in one hand.

The cemetery is a neat but cold and impersonal place. It was not always so. A few years ago, the local authorities were given money to renovate it. Where once there was a very human - and very Italian - clutter of personal memorials and memories, they imposed order.

Image caption Not everyone likes the new gravestones

Even worse, says Ms Colletti, it is a lie. In place of the jumble of memorials to the 700 or so victims whose bodies were identified and laid to rest by their families - and the far greater number of unmarked graves of the unknown - they imposed uniformity and order.

Today every victim has his or her own headstone but they bear no relation to the remains that lie beneath.

Ms Colletti used to know where her father lay. Now she does not. His headstone lies next to that of her mother, sister and grandmother, none of whose bodies were ever found.

"It is," she said, "like losing your father all over again. This is a false history. It doesn't tell the true story because it doesn't show how few of the dead were ever identified. Before, it did. Now - no."