Vajont Dam: When Fiction Captures Reality

On a bright winter morning at 8am my Italian friends came to collect me for our day trip up north. I had prepared with extra scarves and jumpers because we would be travelling 3 hours further up the Boot into the mountains. Our destination was the Vajont Dam, the location of one of the most harrowing disasters in Italian history. On the night of 9 October 1963, only a few years after the dam was constructed, a massive landslide deposited tons of mud into the reservoir causing a man-made tsunami that destroyed several towns and killed almost 2,000 people.

As we drove the landscape changed from infinite flat fields to snow-flecked peaks. For the last half hour or so we drove along an arcaded mountain road, with images of bright white jagged rocks flashing past. Deep below a crevasse yearned, and suddenly the vast dam was before us, a great curved sheet slotted into the valley. It was bitterly cold walking from the car to the start of the dam. But more chilling was the endless string of little coloured flags attached to the fence, the material now discoloured and fraying. I inspected. The first flag read ‘8 years’, the next ‘3 years’, the next ‘not born’. Realisation dawned that this line of hundreds of little triangles flapping in the wind represented the lives of children, some not even born, that were lost on that single disastrous night.

The tour took us right across the top of the dam, affording magnificent views of the valley beyond. The guide pointed out the towns of Longarone, Pirago and others, so small and vulnerable beneath the gigantic feat of engineering of the dam, originally responsible for holding back an at least 250m tall body of water. We were shown the site of the landslide which initiated the disaster, the location of the control office that was destroyed, and shown lists of figures of metric tons of water or wave speed. But it was difficult to imagine such horror while standing under the sun gazing at the idyllic scenery surrounding us.

Back at home, I found the film ‘Vajont’, which imagines that night in 1963. It takes us on a personal journey of the project surveyor, distinctly a ‘hero’, and his wife who is also carrying his child. Although it is certainly a fabrication, they easily allow us to live the disaster through the residents of the town. We experience the disaster from different perspectives, literally, and live the build up and aftermath for ourselves. It was this film that turned those coloured pieces of cloth from a statistic to a reality.

The historical facts are also a little dramatised in the film, but that merely helps to illustrate the intense outcry of the public on discovering that officials had concealed life-saving evidence. During construction there had been several warning signs that the Monte Toc, above the dam, was geologically unstable. But economics prevailed and even solid proof from geological investigations was dismissed by the Italian government. Our project surveyor in the film illustrates this horrific concealment, as he asks point blank to leaders of the project whether he and his pregnant wife should move away from Longarone and stay with their relatives for a while. Reassured, he leaves her that evening to check up on the dam, and therefore witnesses from above the betrayal of his colleagues. The landslide that night was much larger and faster than predicted and so, although officials had eventually conceded there was danger and lowered the water level of the lake, nothing could prevent the tidal wave of water from crashing down into the valley below. Indeed the powerful gust of air preceding the wave did almost as much damage as the water itself.

The most powerful image from the film was the final scene, after the disaster, where the project surveyor (a miraculous survivor) descends from the dam into his village in seek of his wife. Here he finds only destruction, and amongst the mud he discovers a rocking chair, previously introduced to us as that used by his wife. It is not the pain of her death that resounds most from this scene, it is the realisation of the possibility that she, along with many others, could have been saved.

The Vajont Dam tragedy is chilling foremost because of the power that had lain in the hands of a few money-focused individuals, whose blindness and single-mindedness was fatal for so many others. Although the facts and physical proof at the dam itself were staggering, it was the slightly kitsch film that stopped these facts becoming emotionless figures and instead planted an emotionally charged memory of Vajont in my mind.

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