Screaming Fury: Vajont Dam Disaster

October 2013 saw the 50th anniversary of the Vajont Dam Disaster, an event that seems to have been overlooked by the anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination (perhaps it is like history repeating itself – after Kennedy’s death I was unable to find much else in America newspaper archives dated 1963 of the Vajont Dam). My thanks to Stefano of Clicks and Corks for kindly pointing me in the direction of this story and providing very helpful sources regarding this sad event. This post is dedicated to each of the 1,917 souls who died in the tragedy. 

Vajont Dam

October 9, 1963. It was nearly 11:00 p.m. and most people had gone to bed. In the distance and wedged into the mountains stood the Vajont Dam. The imposing dam was one of the largest and most advanced of its kind in the world. But nature was about to test its superiority.

Plans for the structure had been conceived in the years just prior to World War II but it didn’t see its completion until fifteen years after the war in September 1959. Since then Italian locals regarded the dam with wariness. Over the years the water level of the lake was raised despite concerns over potential slides. Approval had been given to the Vajont Dam’s operators, Società Adriatica di Elettricità, to raise the water level until soon it reached the maximum. A landslide had occurred in 1960 and while it did little damage, the dam was still considered a hazard. At the time the dam was being laid out and planned it was not known that the area it would stand guard under was unstable; initially it was thought that bedrock made up the terrain of Monte Toc…it didn’t. And it was only a matter of time before something very bad happened.

By late 1963 a slide on Monte Toc and just above the dam was being monitored. The lake was lowered, people living near the dam were evacuated and below residents of Erto were warned. In the town of Longarone residents received no warning at all.

The debris sliding down Monte Toc was equal to twice that of the lake’s water capacity. On that fateful October night when the chunk of mountain finally slid into the lake the dam didn’t give away. Instead displaced water sloshed over and out of the dam and went hurtling down the mountain. The oncoming barrage of water was nearly unfathomable. It was with such force that the millions of tons of water hit the valley below that a 200-foot deep hole was created; it was according to one report “as large as a baseball field”.  From there a 150-foot wave barreled toward Longarone. Everything happened so fast there was little chance for a reaction. Shortly before 11:00 p.m. sleeping Longarone was surprised; even the local police force was caught off guard before they were swept away. Structures were washed away and the terrain flattened. An intense roaring announced the arrival of death.

Church bell tower that survived (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An American couple escaped with their lives, but had they not been where they were their trip might not have ended as happily. Robert and Betty De Lazzero were visiting Longarone where Robert’s father had been born. Initially, the De Lazzeros were to leave Longarone on October 9, but at the urging of a cousin they stayed on a bit longer. That evening Robert grudgingly left a hotel with his wife to climb 150 steps up a mountain to get to his aunt and cousins’ home. After having had dinner and chatting with the family the De Lazzeros were ready to call it a night and yet again the cousins insisted they remain a little while longer. As the time approached 11:00 p.m. their conversations were overtaken with a “heavy silence”. “Outside a whirring sound began,” Robert remembered,  “It came from a distance at first and seemed muted. Then swiftly it became a rush of air like the blast from a jet engine. It roared down the streets in a screaming fury”. Cousin Bettina Bratti ran to the door and peered out before slamming it shut. “The dam! The dam we are all dead” she shouted before the electricity died. Before anyone could escape a blast of air and then water knocked Robert over. By some reports the rush of air had at some point been strong enough to crush internal organs. Prepared to die Robert didn’t fight the water but let it carry him. That is until he found a ledge to grab hold of. The water “was gone as quickly as it had come”. Robert and Betty were gravely injured, but they eventually recovered. Both cousins survived the disaster although the elderly aunt did not.

The next morning it was seen that, contrary to what had been thought, the dam still stood. But it was small comfort. Longarone had been transformed into twenty-five miles of mud. The devastation was unprecedented; very few survivors expected anything so horrific. In three minutes most of Longarone’s citizens were dead. To illustrate the enormity of the causalities: 180 students of 320 died; 12 of 16 teachers were lost; and six hamlets were destroyed. In the ensuing operations to rescue the living and recover the dead it was discovered 1,917 souls had lost their lives. A little over 1,000 of the bodies would be recovered. Others would remain buried too deep in the sea of mud to locate in time or had been washed down Piave River and out to the Adriatic Sea.

Longarone, Italy

Longarone, Italy

A nauseating smell hung over the area an ever present reminder of what had happened. With Italian soldiers consistently digging in the miles of mud hoping to locate bodies it more resembled a battlefield than it did a town. Disease became a very real threat and before an epidemic broke out – though not all were accounted for – the search for bodies ended days after the disaster . Lime was spread over the ground and mud plowed over. Because of the very few survivors rescuers had more medical supplies then they needed. Instead it was requested that bulldozers be sent so clean up efforts could begin. Military personnel from Italy, the United States and Switzerland took part in evacuation efforts ferrying both survivors and bodies to safety. Major Harvey C. Mayse would go onto comment “I’ve been through warfare but this is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. I hope I never see anything like it again”.

There were heartbreaking moments when individuals who had been out of town returned to Longarone to find their families gone and homes destroyed. In the aftermath soldiers came across Carmela Buttet digging away at the mud with a spoon. Beneath her was the area where her home had stood. “My son…My son he’s in there”. Even when soldiers tried to pull her away Carmela refused to give up. Her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren were all gone. Another man had been away at the time and returned to find a very surreal world. “My family was wiped out – destroyed. I was in Belluno working. Then I came home I don’t recognize anything. We were living here or maybe there I don’t know.”

In the end survivors would return. Although by December plans were in place to begin rebuilding elsewhere a few diehards refused to give up Longarone as they tried to reclaim life from the mud. A year later electricity was still not a realization but survivors remained optimistic; even though they had little to look forward to they soldiered on with grit and determination.

Also see this video: Vajont.

Sources: Environment & Society PortalSecond from Disaster; The Basement GeographerSuburban Emergency Management Project; The Pittsburgh Press. October 12, 1963; The Knickerbocker News. October 11, 1963; The Miami Newa. October 4, 1964; The Times Record. December 26, 1963; Tonawanda News. October 12, 1963; Tonawanda News. October 11, 1963; The Knickerbocker News. February 16, 1964; The Times Record. October 15, 1963; The Times Record. October 10, 1963; The Geneva Times. October 11, 1963; Tonawanda News. October 10, 1963.