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The World's Most Tragic Dam Disaster
For years the great new Vajont Dam had been the pride and fear of people living in Longarone.
The dam was the highest arch dam in the world. It attracted tourists from all over the world. It had a graceful curving wall of concrete which rose 858 feet in the air. The lake was not yet full but it would eventually provide vast amounts of electricity to the region. A well known engineer was in charge of the project who had built dams in several countries.
The locals distrusted the stability of Monte Toc, which anchored the dam’s left shoulder and hung nearly 4,000 feet above the new lake. An alarming crack in the earth and a gap more than a foot wide and about 8,000 feet long, appeared high up on Monte Toc after a test filling. SADE would not be able to complete the dam on time and had to do at least two years of expensive testing.
Strange Rumblings Came From Deep in the Earth
The firm’s main concern was that landslides might clog the basin and make it unsuitable for water storage. They felt that the surrounding area was safe and that there was no danger.
In 1963 a new test-raising of the water was done. Another long crack split the earth high on Monte Toc and from July to September, small earth tremors shook the area. Strange rumbling came from deep down in the earth.
They Had The Heaviest Rain in 20 Years
Suddenly the implanted sentinel bench marks on the mountain’s flanks began moving towards the highest danger reading of 40. Enel-SADE halted the test raising and hoped that the earth would settle down to a new stability.
To make matters worse, the heaviest rain fell in 20 years. The alarm signals continued. On September 26 with disaster 13 days away, Enel-SADE deputy director-general gave an emergency order to take the water level down. However as the water went down, the bench-mark warnings of earth slippage went up. Great floodlights shone over the whole mountainside, and the marks which were fitted with reflectors, could be seen clearly.
Nearly 200 Ignored The Evacuation Warning
On October 8, the slippage was up to 150 millimeters per 24 hours and rising. Warning notices were rushed throughout the lakeside area, in which the local mayor urgently advised all people to leave on Enel-SADE trucks.
Nearly 200 ignored the evacuation warning and paid with their lives. Longarone celebrated the following day as they had had an excellent harvest. Everybody was getting together with old friends in the bar-cafes, and catching up over a glass of wine. Hundreds of men, mostly soccer fans, stayed at the bar-cafes later than usual that evening because they wanted to watch a match between the Real Madrid team and Glasgow Rangers on television.
The World's Most Tragic Dam Disaster
Could this disaster have been prevented if they had listened to the locals?
The Mountain Split Away Clearly
Up on Monte Toc the sentinel bench marks had gone crazy. The signals were reading 190-200, where before 40 were considered dangerous. And then the mountain fell straight in the lake. It was the greatest single mass that had fallen in Europe since pre-historic times.
A Church and Some Lower Houses Vanished
A parish priest of Casso village which was situated high on a mountain just across the lake, happened to be watching.
In the glare of the floodlights he saw the mountainside suddenly slip loose with a terrifying sound. And just below him, a church and some lower houses vanish. Then the great 20,000 volt high tension lines short-circuited, fused and the valley was plunged into darkness.
And Longarone Vanished
The water raced and banged at the dam but the dam held. The water went over the dam high up to 300 feet high, and smashed to the bottom of the gorge 800 feet below.
Then it burst across the wide Piave river bed. By now it was a tornado of water, mud and rocks, hundreds of feet high and heading straight for Longarone. It shot far up the hillside where Longarone stood, then recoiled into the Piave Valley with a terrifying sucking noise, and Longarone vanished.
Protected By Angels
Somebody yelled at a bar that the dam had burst and everybody tried to get to safety. Some that were fast enough got away, those too old or too dazed died.
Teresa Galli 12, was closing her balcony window when the house seemed to dissolve around her. Some great force, wind and water, picked her up and whirled her along. An old couple watched from the top floor as the flood invaded the ground floor, and dropped a dark bundle which gave a groan. It was Maria Teresa Galli, fainting with shock, bruised, but little harmed and protected by the Angels.
The Survivors Were In Shock
Shocked survivors saw bodies floating in the debris. But most remember the cold wind and the terrifying noise.
Only about a dozen buildings from the original 300 still stood in Longarone. The remains of cars stood sparkiling in the sun. The raging flood had removed every particle of paint. Out of every six children in Longarone five died. A flood of compassion and assistance came from all over Italy. The Italian Government allocated nearly R14 million to rebuild Longarone.
© 2016 Anita Hasch