Disastro del Vajont 1963


Driving through Dolomiti during a recent trip to Italy, I stumbled upon a small village in the mountains that seemed out of place. As far as my experience with this region goes, the vilaggi in Italian Alps are usually picturesque, uniformly equipped with quaint little city centers full of borderline kitschy / charming pedestrian zones (Ortisei in Val Gardena) and often set in impressive scenic valleys (Cortina D’Ampezzo). Longarone, at the other hand, sits at the bottom of a valley that is surrounded by tall slightly ominous dark mountains and its architecture is neither picturesque, nor charming. If anything, it bears a striking resemblance to the communist villages and cities scattered around Slovakia that I’ve come to know all to well.

This sight becomes all the more evident the moment you climb up the mountain-side. Settled at the bottom of a wide dry riverbed, it does not blend in with the surroundings or stand prominent with a church steeple at its center, as is usually the case with almost any village around.

So out of place it was, so un-Italian, that it prompted a question: what happened here? Well, as it turns out, the original, historic village of Longarone, was erased from the face of the Earth in a disaster straight out of a bad movie. Disastro del Vajont of 1963 was a confluence of bad engineering, negligence and, putting it perhaps a bit dramatically, man’s arrogance over nature. The little village, nowadays incredulously known as the world’s ice-cream capital, was a truly Venetian Alpine paradise once, if one is to believe the historical photographs (source: Corriere delle Alpi).

Small, serene and most of all, set in an attractive location on one side of the valley, just opposite a great ravine dividing the mountains in front of it. The ravine itself, the most prominent part of the valley, sported Vajont, a bucolic stream flowing out to the riverbed below.

This serenity of a tucked away place reachable only with difficulty was about to perish as the ravine was primed for a new piece of national pride, the engineering marvel embodied in the project of the highest dam in the world. The hydropower plant to be located here was supposed to power the whole region of Venice, the so-called Tre Venezie, even during the regular yearly dry seasons. With plans formulated and dating back to 1920s, the construction began in 1957.

Mere four years later, Diga del Vajont was opened to the chagrin of the locals. Situated on the foothill of Mount Toc, a mountain that, for its frequent landslides, received its name from the Venetian word meaning “soaked” or “rotten”, was officially deemed a qualified success. In order to reach the peak of the ravine ridge it was built 10 times taller than originally planned and thus created a reservoir capable of bridging over the dry seasons and providing enough electricity and potable water to the whole region year-round.

Constructed with pride to withstand all the possible contingencies, there was little fear or doubt that the mountain and the river could not be managed successfully. Neither the experts, nor the state objected or suspected any major safety concerns. Suitability studies did not officially uncover any immitigable dangers posed by Mount Toc, a mountain that had been worrying the locals for centuries now, most recently in 1868 and in 1920s in a valley nearby. The work of the Italian journalist giving voice to the inhabitants of the villages around, Tina Merlin and who publicized her research into the dangers of the dam, was ridiculed culminating in a trial fro on the account of spreading false and misleading information.

What followed was seemingly inspired by an apocalyptic movie with a heavy penchant for Hitchcockesque slow-building tension. Locals from Longarone, watching the towering dam with ever more apprehension, claimed frequently hearing earthquakes in the area after the grand opening. The problematic weather patterns had a hand in what followed, but ultimately it was the innocuous-looking human actions taken in order to counteract their effects. The autumn season of 1963 turned out to be exceptionally dry and as a result of it, the water levels of the newly created reservoir started dipping fast. In order to keep the volume sufficiently high for power production throughout the winter, a decision was made: elevate the lake surface up to 700m above the sea level.

The consequences were brutal. The massive mountain side of Mount Toc, historically unstable as it was, and now soaked in excess water created by the rising water levels, slid violently into the deep lake in a matter of seconds. No contingency plan ever prepared for this possibility.

In spite of it, the dam stood unmoved. The peril, as it turned out, was not that the construction was not strong enough to withstand anything thrown at it, it was the sheer unexpected volume of soil and other matter that proved to be crucial in its failing. 

Projected to shield the villages around from 40 million cubic meters of additional material being dumped into the lake at a steady pace, the dam was not harmed but it could not hope to contain a violent mountain slide of 300 million cubic meters that came upon it in mere moments. A lethal combination of lake water and heavy suffocating mud spilled over its top like a tsunami and obliterated everything in its path, Longarone included. There was no time for an evacuation. And there was nowhere to run.

Longarone vanished with a big thud and a swift muddy wipe. The estimated 1917 dead, buried under unimaginable amounts of suffocating mud, were instantly crushed and carried away in its forceful torrent. More than 487 children among them. The unstoppable wave travelled as far as Belluno, some 15 kilometers away, and at its peak was estimated to be 150m tall. 

As if by a miracle, the only structure left standing when the rescuers and military forces arrived at the scene, was the church steeple of Pirago – the solitary high point among the flattened ruins of the village. However, the church nave underneath it was nowhere to be found.

The photographs from the state police and military forces document the recovery effort, as well as official visits from commanders and representatives of Italian state. These photographs from  Polizia di Stato also show the general despair and the desolate surroundings after the catastrophe struck.

Photographs of people sitting and walking in the midst of ruins that once used to be their homes, especially the of old ladies wearing traditional skirts and black headscarves, are heartbreaking.

There were a few survivors found, rescued and taken on military jeeps to provisional housing.

Mostly though, the stories were not of luck by any measure. Only 1500 bodies out of the 1917 dead were recovered from the rubble and the rest was never found.

Extensive inquiries into culpability for the disaster were made and the trials went on and off for more than a decade. The preventability and predictability of the disaster was never proven, but most high officials and designers of the dam and surrounding support projects were found guilty and sentenced for involuntary manslaughter. Tina Merlin, the journalist that tried to shed some light on the matter before the disaster, was later acquitted of any charges and found not guilty.

Nowadays, the dam is still functioning, albeit very differently. The flow of Vajont is not as restrained and just behind it, there is a church and a memorial called the Wall of Shame. Small colorful flags with the names and the dates of children and unborn children that died in the disaster.