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Vajont - a tragedy foretold

by Giovanni Sonego last modified 2008-06-20 15:10

We visit the scenes of the Vajont disaster, in the heart of the Dolomites and discover a place where nothing is as it should be

This is a simple story, simple yet terrible. It's the story of a reservoir built in the wrong place, of endless unheeded warnings, of a piece of Mt. Toc falling into the dam. This is the story of the 2000 people who were swept away at Longarone.

Nearly 40 years have passed since the tragedy of Vajont, a tragedy that is impossible to forget. The reservoir, which at the time was considered to be a masterpiece of engineering, is still there, entrenched in millions of cubic metres of clay. A 260-metre high monument to human greed.
Where are we? Cortina is just up the road. The tourists on their way up to the most famous resort in the Dolomites can't help but noticing the dam locked in its rocky ravine. But in order to realise what really happened and to understand that after the disaster nothing - except the dam that is - could ever remain the same then you have to take a short detour up the mountain (follow the signpost for Pordenone as you go into Longarone). The road is steep and after a few tunnels you're on a level with the reservoir.
- The Vajont disaster was back in the news a few years ago thanks to an atmospheric monologue written by Marco Paolini and Gabriele Vacis and performed by Paolini. The piece was adapted for television and captured an audience of millions. Those of you who missed the show or who wish to see it once more can buy the video and accompanying book published by Einaudi (Video in Italian only, to buy the English version of the book see below.).
Renzo Martinelli's film on the tragedy is soon due on general release throughout Italy. You will recognised many of the scenes described in this article.
Read "Sulla pelle viva. Come si costruisce un catastrofe" by the journalist Tina Merlin to get to grips with the tragedy. Mauro Corona's books will give you a better understanding of the people of the area. Corona is a striking figure, born in mountains he is a climber, sculptor and more recently a writer. As a child he was left homeless by the disaster only to return to the area in later years. He writes about the world around him and the people and animals that inhabit it, always using the same terrible backdrop of the gaping mountain. Read "Il volo della martora" published by Vivalda and "Finché il cuculo canta" published by Biblioteca dell’Immagine.

Stop where you expect the basin of the dam to be. There's a small church dedicated to the memory of all those who died. The water is not where it should be. In its place there are millions of cubic metres of mud and debris. Walk back down the road as far as the dam. Imagine the water forcing its way through the gorge. Even the ground you are walking on is not where it should be. It used to be part of Mt. Toc, look right where the "M" shape is.
You don't need to be an expert to realise that "M" is the gaping wound left behind when part of the mountain was forced away. It all seems impossible today, yet it happened, only 40 years ago.

Get back into your car. You won't have noticed but the road isn't where it should be. The old road has disappeared and the new one winds its way through the rocks and earth that should be higher up the mountain.
There's a gym carved from the rockface on your left, a tribute to the strength of character of the people from this valley. Further up you'll come upon the turn off for Casso. Casso was partially saved by the rocks you passed on your way up. The inhabitants of Casso, like the rest of this valley, are not where they should be. The town is semi-abandoned. Take a stroll through the streets. It's an easy walk, real easy. Yet no-one makes it this far: they all stop further down the valley. Pass the church and keep going up until you're overlooking the reservoir. Things are different up here. Close-up you lose all sense of proportion. From here everything is clear. It's easy to imagine what happened that night of October 9th 1963. Silence is the only fitting tribute.

While we wait for the Longarone Museum - Vajont Exhibition to open we can visit Longorone's Library. Objects found after the disaster, photographs and all documentation imaginable in a choice of languages are on display. Opening times: Mon. 14-18. Tue-Fri. 15-18. Sat-Sun closed. In the council's cultural section (open in the mornings from 9-12) you can watch a film on the terrible events although it is advisable to book in advance (tel: +39-0437-575819).

Marco Paolini - - the official site of one of Italy's most acclaimed actors
Backstage - - a cinematic rendition of the tragedy
Northwestern University - - Marco Paolini at Northwestern University.
The Vajont disaster - - the disaster analysed from a geological point of view
Personal recollections - of the tragic night.
Vajont - - a historical and technical point of view.
The Story of Vajont - by Marco Paolini and Gabriele Vacis, edited and translated by Thomas Simpson with an afterword by Franco Nasi (Bordighera, Crossings 9, ISBN 1-884419-41-0) Available from Amazon online bookstore.

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