The Tragedy of Vajont, Italy

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Have you ever heard of the tragedy of Vajont? If you haven’t, you’re not alone.

Prior to taking a day trip to the town of Longarone, located in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites to visit the hometown of a friend, I’d never heard of it, either. And, for the most part, the majority of Italians had no idea what took place on the evening of October 9, 1963, at 10.39pm, in the far reaches of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy.

That is, until a documentary entitled “Il Racconto del Vajont” aired on Italian national television in 1997, which detailed the circumstances surrounding Vajont. The impact of this documentary was immediate: the nation was shocked and outraged, and Vajont went from being virtually unknown to a household name. Ever since, thousands of visitors have walked along the site, trying to comprehend the enormity of what occurred almost 50 years ago.

The documentary traces the circumstances surrounding the most destructive landslide in Europe’s history. About 270 million m³ of forest, earth and rock slid violently into the Vajont damn, causing a 250-meter high wave to topple over – the force of which was equal to three Hiroshima bombs. The wave crashed into the valley below, causing widespread destruction. The town of Longarone and several nearby villages were completely destroyed, killing approximately 2,500 people – many of whose bodies were never recovered.

But knowing where this tragedy began, and finished, is difficult to say. You see, building a 262-meter damn against a mountain whose very name ‘Toc’ means ‘rotten’ in local dialect should have raised alarm bells from the government, politicians, geologists, engineers and all those involved. And, in fact, it did.

Numerous reports outlined the dangers of building the Vajont damn due to mountain instability. Continuous minor landslides along the valley walls, as well as continual earth movements, were cited and recorded. Local residents raised their concerns to officials on many occasions, but to no avail. A combination of ambitiousness, incompetency and gross human error meant that all unmistakable warnings were disregarded. Once it became clear to those involved that the mountain was eroding, engineers and geologists attempted to rectify the situation by lowering the damn. Sadly, their efforts propelled the landslide because, up until that time, the water had been acting as a kind of make-shift weight, effectively holding the fragile mountain in place. The results were catastrophic.

What followed that October evening could also be seen as a tragedy. Given that the Vajont damn was government owned, the messages that filtered nationally and internationally were carefully controlled. Politicians and authorities attributed the tragedy to an unexpected and unavoidable natural event. In other statements, the collapse was seen as an unfortunate bi-product of post-war industrialization.  Overall, reporting was inadequate and, as a result, the issue soon blew-over.

Continuing on, monetary compensations became enveloped in fraud and corruption, whereby large sums of money were funneled into the hands of businesses, lawyers, notaries, politicians and the like. For those few who survived the catastrophe, or were fortunate enough be out of town that night, their entitlements were based upon factors such as age and the number of lost loved ones. This form of testing meant that entitlements were not distributed evenly amongst individuals and families, which in turn fuelled rifts and resentments in an already broken community.

Today Longarone is of a completely different ilk. It bares none of the classic features typical to Italian mountain towns, such as narrow roads, case in linea (attached houses), aging monuments or historical fountains. In its place there are modern buildings, wide roads and plentiful car parking along the main drive.

An architecturally designed museum sits prominently in the centro (town centre). The museum houses salvaged remnants from the old town, including the original church bell. The names of those who died are carefully etched along the entry hall. Here you’ll see dozens of surnames belonging to the same family, suggesting that entire families were wiped out. When questioned, my friend confirmed that, yes indeed, some surnames have been lost forever.

That day, after finishing our home-cooked pasta, we found ourselves wading through old scratchy family photos of deceased relatives, as well as images of lost towns. Our friend’s mother recounted memories of the flood and how her auntie’s naked body was recovered three kilometres from the centro (the force of the shockwave was so strong that it blew the victims’ clothes off). From their tiny balcony, she pointed to a little house up on a near-distant hill, and explained how this historic home is one of the few that survived. Indeed, it stands high and proud – a testament to all that was lost.

Visitors to Vajont can take guided walking tours along paths created by the massive landslide. Faded black and white photographs of those employees stationed at the rig on the night of the tragedy are fixed into the rock wall that separates one of the tallest damns in the world from the busy main highway into Longarone.

Longarone is a town buried in sorrow and unresolved anger. It holds secrets that long to escape, and justice that hasn’t quite prevailed. It is impossible to compress the details surrounding Vajont into a short blog post. So, instead I’ll leave you with the final scene from Renzo Martinelli’s 2001 film ‘Vajont – La Diga Del Disonore’. Remember that this scene is based on actual events… If you’re like me, you may need a cup of tea afterwards.

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