Megatsunami on land. The lake waters flooded the city

A huge, 27-million-cubic-meter mass of rocks and earth fell into the lake, moving at a dizzying speed of 100 km per hour. A gigantic column of water shot up in the air to an unimaginable height of 250 meters, then poured over the dam and fell on Longarone. Everything happened quickly. All it took was a few dozen seconds. People stood no chance.

A block of light concrete, visible from a distance, connects the edges of the very narrow, very high gorge. It stands out against the gray background of the mountains and the blueness of the sky. This is the dam that divides the Vajont River in the Italian Dolomites. However, there is no point in looking for the artificial lake that should have been shimmering there behind it. Instead, the depression is filled with a mass of rubble, huge piles of rocks mixed with soil. Above on the slopes of Monte Toc, an open wound can be seen -- a strip of bare rock, two kilometers long and 400 meters wide -- the cause of the calamity.

Notwithstanding the trees and plants that have returned to cling boldly to the rockface, the gash on Monte Toc has not healed fully despite the passage of time. And what about the wounds among people -- the residents of the town of Longarone and the other towns, those located in the valley of the Piave river, at the foot of the mountains as well as those located on the slopes above the dam? Few survived. Those who did and stayed feel they are the guardians of memory.

Towns that had been wiped off the face of the earth were rebuilt. There are new houses in Longarone, plus a church built to commemorate the tragedy (only the bell tower remains of the old, historic church, as evidenced by the famous photo taken just after the disaster) and, of course, there's the memorial museum.

On Monday, October 9, President Sergio Mattarella arrived in Longarone. His presence marked the 60th anniversary of the tragic day when the waters of the artificial lake created behind the Vajont dam overflowed, destroying everything along the way. People had no chance against an element of apocalyptic proportions. Even today, it is impossible to determine the exact number of victims. The official toll is 1,917 people, de facto certainly more, perhaps as many as 2,500. Only 1,500 bodies were found, fewer than 700 were identified. In Longarone alone, where the powerful wave hit, over 1,450 people died. Only 30 children survived. Of 350 families, no one survived.

According to UNESCO, the tragedy in Longarone is one of the greatest disasters caused not by the forces of nature, but by human activity. In Italy it constitutes the largest ever.

A million times louder

"My father had come home from work as usual, but then, he did something he had never done before – he drove away somewhere by car. Five minutes later I heard something like thunder. It was incredibly powerful. Grandma came into my room and said she would close the shutters because there was going to be a storm. At that moment the lights went out and I heard a sound that cannot be described. It reminded me of the sound of metal store shutters closing with a bang, but it was a million, billion times worse. I felt my bed sinking, as if a hole was opening under it, as if a terrible force was pulling me away. I couldn't do anything. I didn't know what was happening."

Micaela Colletti, then 12 years old, spoke of her experiences with a BBC journalist ten years ago, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Hers remains the best-known and most complete account, repeated to this day by many media outlets. The girl, thrown into the air with enormous force, flew 350 meters. She was lucky. She was pulled out from under a layer of mud by a rescue team. She was the only member of her family to survive. Her father's body was identified. Those of her mother, grandmother and sister were never found.
It was October 9, 1963, 10.39 p.m. The inhabitants of Longarone and the surrounding villages were getting ready for bed. But this circumstance, relevant as it might be in disasters such as an earthquake, was irrelevant here. There was no escaping what has often been called the "land megatsunami" that was to roll across the valley with a force greater than the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima. All the more so, since everything happened so quickly, in just a few dozen seconds.

Micaela Colletti recalls: "When I was pulled out, I heard someone say, 'We found another old lady.' I was only 12 years old, but I was covered in black mud and must have looked like an old woman. I remember being carried by the only surviving firefighter in Longarone, tripping over the bright, unbelievably white rocks. The moon hung above us, huge and so close it was terrifying. I was placed in a car. I heard someone crying and suddenly realized it was me."

  The disaster was not the result of a dam burst. The cataclysm was caused by a landslide on the slope of Monte Toc. A huge mass of rocks and earth, 270 million cubic meters in total, moving at a dizzying speed of 100 km per hour fell into the lake. A gigantic column of water soared to an unimaginable height of 250 meters, overflowing the dam and plunging down on Longarone. Where it hit the ground, a huge crater was created, 80 meters in diameter and 60 meters deep. Many people were sucked into it, never to return. 

That was not all. The force of it hitting the ground created an air pocket in front of the water column. It was this air pocket that acted as the shock wave during the ensuing atomic bomb-like explosion. Most of the people found afterwards were naked, their clothes ripped off by the powerful blast. Inhabitants of the villages located on the mountain slopes above the lake also suffered, because they too were affected by a slightly weaker wave that spread behind the dam.

The sliding mountain

Four hundred kilometers west of Longarone, near Turin, the picturesque Orco Valley at the foot of the Gran Paradiso mountain is filled with a cascade of dams and small hydroelectric plants, intertwined with charming villages. It's hard not to think what would happen if... The fact is, however, that the dams in Orco are not large and that they have been there for almost a hundred years. They were built, as the plaques commemorating the efforts of the builders remind us, in the second half of the 1920s, at the beginning of Mussolini's rule.
Some deemed it a good time for such ventures. The idea of damming the waters of the Vajont River in the Dolomites and building a hydroelectric power plant there was already being considered. However, because the inhabitants of the area were categorically opposed to it, nothing came of the plan. It was only after World War II, when the post-war economic boom made the need to provide energy for northern Italy's rapidly developing industrial base and its inhabitants all the more urgent, were the plans resurrected. 

Construction of the dam began in 1956 and was completed in just three years. The dam, the tallest in the world at the time, was a true engineering marvel: 262 meters high, over 3 meters wide at the crest and 27 meters at the base.

It is likely that the urgency of the undertaking was responsible for numerous warning signals emanating from both the natural surroundings and the region's inhabitants to be ignored. It was known that the terrain was unstable and that the geological structure of Monte Toc was far from ideal but the project's proponents believed that these issues could be controlled. Even the realisation that the Vajont River gorge had been created as a result of the Monte Toc landslide millions of years ago did not dampen the enthusiasm.

Seismic tremors, albeit weak, and slope slippage becoming more and more apparent as the reservoir was being filled were also ignored. The largest landslide – 800,000 cubic meters – caused a wave several meters high. Yet the only result was a decision to lower the water table. This was the conclusion reached by scientists from the institute in Bergamo, who used a model to study the behavior of mountains and water.

Their conclusions that it was safe to maintain the water table at 40 meters below the dam crest and that the observed ground instability at Monte Toc was within acceptable limits were greeted optimistically. No one imagined that the slope along the entire length of the mountain might collapse and that there would be over 300 times more rock material.

In the summer of 1963, however, the situation deteriorated significantly. The summer was rainy, the ground was soaked with water, and landslides occurred every day. The provincial authorities suggested starting the evacuation of residents. One day it was observed that within 24 hours the ground from Monte Toc had moved not by a centimeter or two, as had been the case before, but by an entire meter. By that time, however, as was assessed after the disaster, it was too late to avert the effects.

On October 9, there was unrest throughout the day. Pieces of rocks and trees were uprooted from the mountainside. In the evening, alarmed engineers and service technicians went out to the dam to see what was happening. A moment later, a wave swept them away.

Nature or man?

An answer to this pressing question was sought from the first moments after the disaster. Had it been caused by the untamed forces of nature or by the naivety of people who thought they could control nature? Maybe it was a case of too much carelessness or greed perhaps? Too much had been invested to stop construction on the basis of vague concerns and uncertain forecasts. It was not obvious to everyone that man was at fault, choosing to build a large dam in a high risk location and failing to heed the warnings of those who knew the terrain. The accused defended themselves, in parliament and in the media, referring to the unpredictability of nature and the will of God.
The construction of the dam was started by a private company, SADE (Società Adriatica di Elettricità), which had a monopoly on electricity supplies in northern Italy. When the disaster occurred, however, SADE was no longer in charge since ownership of the dam and equipment had passed into the hands of the state-run energy company ENEL. This complicated the matter, making it difficult to find an answer to the question of who was most to blame. At what point were they supposed to reverse the project -- early on, when it was relatively easy, or later, when more and more threats were being recognized?

The trial of those accused of causing the tragedy did not begin until 1968 in L'Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region. Three persons -- the head of the contracting company, its chief engineer and a representative of the local authorities responsible for public works -- were sentenced to six years in prison for negligence that led to people's deaths. The other defendants were acquitted. Just this spring, the trial files, which were transferred a few years ago to the archive in Belluno, the main city in the province where Longarone is located, were included in UNESCO's Memory of the World list. This is a collection of valuable documents considered significant enough to be preserved for posterity.

Today, the victims rest together in the memorial cemetery in Fortogna. The remains of those who were previously buried elsewhere have also been moved here. Each victims has a tombstone. The symbolic dimension outweighs the actual one. Those, whose bodies are not there, because they were not found, also have gravestones.

Micaela Colletti believes that this is not good because it blurs the true picture of the effects of the cataclysm. "It's a falsification of history," she says. "It does not show the truth, because now it is not visible how few of the dead were identified. My mother, grandmother and sister have tombstones, although their bodies have not been found. My father's tombstone also stands next to them, but his body is not underneath it either. It's like I lost him for the second time."

Longarone has otherwise recovered from the tragedy. It has become a famous center for optical production (until recently, Safilo, the Italian company renowned for producing frames, had its headquarters here). It is also famed for its annual ice cream fair, which features displays of the latest production equipment and recipes. In Italy, the land of ice cream, this has its own special meaning.

As for the Vajont dam, the impressive work of Italian engineers has withstood the impact. Only the crest was damaged, and then only to a depth of one meter. The dam, suspended in the air, remains with Longarone forever -- as a reminder.

–Teresa Stylińska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: This is where Longarone was a few days before October 17, 1963. Photo: TopFoto / Topfoto / Forum
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