A few days in the mountains – Part 3

26 Aug

One day we thought it was time we paid tribute, if only for our friend S. who lost three family members there.

Longarone is now a neat and clean little village on the banks of the river Piave. There is evidence of Roman presence in the site of Longarone. In the regions of Fortogna and Pirago have been discovered tombs, and at Dogna, a burial site with coins, rings, bracelets, clay jars and a plaque dedicated to a person called Asclepius. Remains of a Roman road were also found. But the early story of the city is not clear until the establishment of the municipality by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. In the Middle Ages and modern era, the city was subject to the social and political events taking place in Belluno, being dominated by several groups and families, such as the Vescovi, the Ezzelino Romano in 1250, the Scala family in 1300, the families of Carrara and Visconti and the Venetian State domination in 1420. Longarone was the site of a battle in World War I, in which a few companies of German troops lead by Erwin Rommel successfully captured an entire Italian division of over 10,000, retreating after the Battle of Kobarid (Caporetto). Rommel was awarded his Pour le Mérite medal for this achievement.

Of the old village all that remains is the City Hall, restored and standing as the only evidence of what once was. On the front, a painting of an old watch stopped at the moment of maybe the worst tragedy my country has ever saw.

The Vajont Dam is a disused dam, completed in 1959 in the valley of the Vajont River under Monte Toc (Toc Mount). One of the tallest dams in the world, it is 262 m (860 ft) high, 27 m (89 ft) thick at the base and 3.4 m (11 ft) at the top. On 9 October 1963, a massive landslide caused a tsunami in the lake, the overtopping of the dam, and 1910 deaths. This event occurred when the designers ignored the geological instability of Monte Toc on the southern side of the basin. Warning signs and negative appraisals during the early stages of filling were disregarded, and the attempt to safely control the landslide into the lake created a 250 metre (820 ft)megatsunami (ten times higher than predicted) that brought massive flooding and destruction to the Piave valley below, wiping out several villages completely. On 12 February 2008, while launching the International Year of Planet Earth, UNESCO cited the Vajont Dam tragedy as one of five “cautionary tales”, caused by “the failure of engineers and geologists”.

Of the 1910 victims of the tragedy, 487 were children under the age of 15 (the youngest just 21 days old), an entire generation cancelled. Now the local school is dedicated to them.

We visited the museum, full of evidences by the few survivors, the documents that testify that the tragedy was an announced one, the photos of the disaster and the damage left, the years of the controversy on who to blame (a very few paied for their mistakes and not that much considering the tragedy) …an impressive and very sad visit, but an interesting one.

Then it was time for a visit to the Monumental Cemetery where the victims were buried, all gathered in families……We searched the entire field until we found the aunt, the uncle and the little cousin (he was just 1 month old) of our friend S. He was 18 at the time, living with his parents not too far, and he went there with his father to give a hand recovering the bodies…….he doesn’t talk much about that, still shocked by what he saw…Hubby and I were too young to remember this tragic event, we read and saw everything on tv over the years, but being actually there was really different, even our voices were low and hoarse walking between the graves…..

We drove down to the Piave valley and up again to the other side, just opposite Longarone, where once was the top of the Mount Toc, the part of the mountain that fell into the dam. A plaque remembers the date, 9 october 1963, and the time, 10.39pm……….

The dam was built by SADE (Società Adriatica di Elettricità, English: Adriatic Energy Corporation), the electricity supply and distribution monopoly in northeastern Italy. The owner, Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, had been Mussolini’s Minister of Finances for several years. The ‘tallest dam in the world’, across the Vajont gorge, was conceived in the 1920s to meet the growing demands for industrialization, but not until the confusion after Mussolini’s fall during World War II was the project authorized on 15 October 1943. The dam and basin were intended to be at the centre of a complex system of water management in which water would have been channeled from nearby valleys and artificial basins located at higher levels. Tens of kilometres of concrete pipes and pipe-bridges across valleys were planned. In the 1950s, SADE’s monopoly was confirmed by post-fascist governments and it bought the land despite opposition by the communities of Erto and Casso in the valley, which was overcome with government and police support. SADE stated that the geology of the gorge had been studied, including analysis of ancient landslides, and that the mountain was believed to be sufficiently stable. Construction work started in 1957, but by 1959 shifts and fractures were noticed while building a new road on the side of Monte Toc. This led to new studies in which three experts separately told SADE that the entire side of Monte Toc was unstable and would likely collapse into the basin if the filling were completed. All three were ignored by SADE. Construction was completed in October 1959, and in February 1960, SADE was authorised to start filling the basin. Throughout the summer of 1960, minor landslides and earth movements were noticed. However, instead of heeding these warning signs, the Italian government chose to sue the handful of journalists reporting the problems for “undermining the social order”. On 4 November 1960, with the water level in the reservoir at about 190 metres (620 ft) of the planned 262 metres (860 ft), a landslide of about 800,000 cubic metres (1,000,000 cu yd) collapsed into the lake. SADE stopped the filling, lowered the water level by about 50 metres (160 ft), and started to build an artificial gallery in the basin in front of Monte Toc to keep the basin usable even if additional landslides (which were expected) divided it into two parts. In October 1961, after the completion of the gallery, SADE resumed filling the narrow reservoir under controlled monitoring. In April and May 1962, with the basin water level at 215 metres (705 ft), the people of Erto and Casso reported five “grade five” Mercalli scale earthquakes. SADE downplayed the importance of these quakes. SADE was then authorized to fill the reservoir to the maximum level. In July 1962, SADE’s own engineers reported the results of model-based experiments on the effects of further landslides from Monte Toc into the lake. The tests indicated that a wave generated by a landslide could top the crest of the dam if the water level was 20 metres (66 ft) or less from the dam crest. It was therefore decided that a level 25 metres (82 ft) below the crest would prevent any displacement wave from over-topping the dam. However, a decision was made to fill the basin beyond that, because the engineers thought they could control the rate of the landslide by controlling the level of water in the dam. In March 1963, the dam was transferred to the newly constituted government service for electricity, ENEL. During the following summer, with the basin almost completely filled, slides, shakes, and movements of the ground were continuously reported by the alarmed population. On 15 September, the entire side of the mountain slid down by 22 centimetres (8.7 in). On 26 September, ENEL decided to slowly empty the basin to 240 metres (790 ft), but in early October the collapse of the mountain’s south side looked unavoidable: one day it moved almost 1 metre (3.3 ft). There is no known record of any warning or evacuation order being issued to the populace. On 9 October 1963, engineers saw trees falling and rocks rolling down into the lake where the predicted landslide would take place. Before this, the alarming rate of movement of the landslide had not slowed as a result of lowering the water, although the water had been lowered to what SADE believed was a safe level to contain the displacement wave should a catastrophic landslide occur. With a major landslide now imminent, engineers gathered on top of the dam that evening to witness the tsunami.

At 10:39 P.M., a massive landslide of about 260,000,000 cubic metres (340,000,000 cu yd) of forest, earth, and rock fell into the reservoir at up to 110 kilometres per hour (68 mph), completely filling the narrow reservoir behind the dam. The landslide was complete in just 45 seconds, much faster than predicted, and the resulting displacement of water caused 50,000,000 cubic metres (65,000,000 cu yd) of water to overtop the dam in a 250-metre (820 ft) high wave. The flooding from the huge wave in the Piave valley destroyed the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Rivalta, Villanova and Faè, killing around 2,000 people and turning the land below the dam into a flat plain of mud with an impact crater 60 metres (200 ft) deep and 80 metres (260 ft) wide. Many small villages near the landslide along the lakefront also suffered damage from a giant displacement wave. Estimates of the dead range from 2,000 to 2,500 people, and about 350 families lost all members. Most of the survivors had lost relatives and friends along with their homes and belongings.

The dam was largely undamaged. The top 1 metre (3.3 ft) or so of masonry was washed away, but the basic structure remained intact and still exists today, as you can see below. Where there was water, not there are trees and bushes…..

Along the path that leads to the dam, colored little flags, reporting the names and age of the 487 children who died that day, the white ones for the unborn babies…..

It’s really impressive that this giant, that caused such a tragedy and so much pain, is still there, solid and bold…..someone says it must be demolished, I think it should stay as a reminder of the human stupidity and greed…

1 Comment

Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Uncategorized


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One response to “A few days in the mountains – Part 3

  1. K

    August 26, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    I knew nothing about this tragedy before your post. Thank you for sharing! Horrific, but important to remember so such nonsense cannot be repeated.
    (And excellent photos)


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