Story — 7 minuti

Story — 7 minuti

A short reportage from the Vajont valley (northern Italy)

Geology is not an exact science. I learned this on my first class: you can try to describe it through equations, define some criteria to tell its story, or use charts to order it, but it still remains non-exact.

The only rule that is useful the field geologist cannot be learned at University. If you need to learn everything about a specific area, the first thing to do is to talk with who lives there. You have to look for who grew there and respects it. If you talk with a farmer, he/she will tell you every single detail. And also because a mountain has that specific name.

Thus, since I’ve known the Vajont disaster, I’ve kept on asking myself why someone decided to build a dam on a mountain called “Toc” (“rotten”, in the local dialect).

A concrete wall

My first encounter with the dam is a little bit confused. I was expecting something majestic, intrusive, but this is not what I found. I arrived from Longarone, where the river Piave flows, and the first thing I see is a small opening through the mountains. It seems like the rocks try to hide the 260-meter high concrete monster and to protect the valley and its inhabitants from any other invader. Actually, this is what engineers look for when it comes to building a dam: a narrow gorge with steep slopes to lean its shoulders and a valley floor wide enough to store water.

I start retracing the Vajont alpine river, bend after bend. If I didn’t knew my destination, it would have been any road in the Dolomites: luxuriant woods, cyclists on their mountain bikes and a breathtaking view on the Piave valley. But right after a long tunnel, distracted by what surrounds me, I bump into the dam. It’s the first time I look a construction of this type and I am sure a punch in the face would be less painful.

The racket, in my head, is deafening almost as the sound of the Vajont flowing in the gorge below.

A monster as massive as it is out of place, evidently uncomfortable in such a delicate territory.

For the engineers of the time it was a work of pure avant-garde, yet another demonstration of how much men can do what they want with nature. And, if I want to be honest with myself, I have to admit that seeing it in front of me shows how here hydraulic engineering is not the problem.

45 seconds

I reach the parking lot upstream the dam and I am even more confused.Drivers horning, shuttling buses and tourists that, in single line, are preparing to climb to the top of the structure. I never expected so many people on a rainy April day.

I try to join one of these groups, after all today I’m a tourist too. We are close to the right entrance of the crowning, a few meters from a plaque in memory of the disaster. The guide begins his story and I understand from the passion with which he speaks that it is not yet another empty repetition of a text learned by heart. 

On the night of 9 October 1963, about 270 million cubic meters of rock broke off from Mount Toc. But the figures, presented in this way, say little or nothing even to the most experienced geotechnician. You have to take them apart, compare them, to understand them. With the same amount of material collapsed in the Vajont basin, approximately two hundred football fields could be filled with a layer of earth almost 200 meters high. And, if this layer was removed from one hundred trucks, it would take seven centuries to completely remove it. To say that the entire side of the mountain collapsed is not an understatement.

If I turn left, I can clearly see the sliding plane of the landslide. Its upper front has an ironic “M” shape, like the initial of the Austrian geologist Müller. His was the first report to describe the existence of a paleo landslide as early as 1961 but, as future events show, it was not heard. The last thing the guide explains to us is the speed with which this mass of earth, rock and water slipped into the basin. According to expert estimates, it reached 90 km/h. Thus, in just 45 seconds it even managed to go up the opposite slope. The water collected by the dam was pushed in two directions, reaching a height of 250 meters: a wave, upstream, lapped the villages of Erto and Casso; another, towards the valley, was so high as to overcome the enormous hydraulic structure like a tsunami and hit Longarone, accelerated by the narrow gorge.

The casualties were about 2000. Of these, only 1500 bodies were found, less than half those recognized.

On the other side

I get back in the car and continue along the hairpin bends that lead to the town of Erto. I want to continue my day on the Vajont alone, I need some solitude to understand my surroundings. I stop in the first empty space, get out of the car and realize that the only noise I hear is that of the stream that flows hundreds of meters below. In front of me, Mount Toc is bare, while around me there are only tilted and folded limestones, already colonized by some pioneer trees. It doesn’t take me long to realize that, actually, ever since I saw the dam, I have always driven and walked over the landslide body.

I feel small, disoriented and confused. It is as if what little I know about geology is being questioned without the right of reply. For me, studying this subject has always meant learning the tools to know and read the territory, to establish a sort of peaceful coexistence. But this is not the case. Here I am forced to admit to myself that mine is a naïve vision, devoid of the malice that perhaps it takes to be a professional geologist.

They built the dam knowing it was not in the right place and deliberately omitted the information they had to move the project forward, complete the reservoir and sell it to the state.

So if someone, at this very moment, asked me if I am convinced of the choice of studies I made, I would certainly falter. Would I ever be able to behave the same way? To put “the arrogance of power” first (as described by Tina Merlin) with respect to my values?

Minutes go by and nobody stops. Yet it is in this exact point that tourists should come, to see that in the Vajont valley the problem is not the dam. The real problem is so great that it is invisible, badly hidden behind the only structure that survived the disaster.

“Dio ci salvi dai sciacalli del Vajont”

Before heading back home, I take a last stroll through the alleys of old Erto. Apart from the church and a small tavern, the town is almost uninhabited. After the disaster, all the surviving inhabitants were urgently evacuated for fear of further collapses and the few families who returned built new houses at higher altitudes, to preserve the memory of the old village.

The stone houses are leaning against each other, some with destroyed roofd, others with branches protruding from the windows. The cobblestone streets are narrow even for people, let alone for cars. If it weren’t for a few cats who let themselves be pampered by passing tourists, hardly anyone would live here.

I stop to talk to a middle-aged lady: she smokes a cigarette sitting on the steps of her house and doesn’t seem sorry to meet new people. She tells me about how Erto reborns with the Summer, thanks to those who have a second home and return for the holidays. And also thanks to the tourists who wander around curiously. The credit, she explains to me, is also due to the publicity made by Mauro Corona, who talks about this place when he is invited by his “Bianchina” on TV, as he calls her. And this what they need: to keep the memory of an exploited and abandoned valley alive, which only resists thanks to the clamor of those who, every now and then, tell about the disaster. 

I feel a little guilty, and I hide my being a geologist. I don’t know why, but I feel responsible too, in my small way. The only thing I can do is go home with fewer answers than when I left.