Peace at Last by Anna Tupling

I hate Tuesdays! Tuesday is the day we have P.E. at school and also the day that we have to visit grandpa in the home. I don’t like it in the home, the people are all old and don’t really know that you are there… and it smells. Mama makes us go, she says it makes grandpa happy but he barely even acknowledges us. Mama says grandpa used to be fun but when grandma died everything changed. All he does is sit all day and stare out the window. Why won’t he talk to us? What is he thinking about?

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Bepi Zanfron can still feel the water sloshing against his face. He woke abruptly not knowing where he was. The last thing he can remember was standing in the kitchen pouring himself a small vino. It was getting late, about 22:40 and he and his wife were starting to think about heading to bed. Bepi had a meeting on Friday and he needed an early start tomorrow to ensure he was prepared and all the final arrangements were in place. The meeting was at the head office in Milan and had been bothering him all week. It was with his new boss Mario, a bit of a dodgy character. Bepi suspected he was somehow linked to the Mafia.

Bepi worked as a journalist for L’Unità a left wing Italian newspaper. He had written a number of articles previously on the new dam. When the authorisation for its creation surfaced in 1943 he was the one to write the story and report on it. He remembered the buzz it made. The construction of the dam started in 1957 and with it brought jobs, revenue and opportunities for tourism. The company SADE (Società Adriatica di Elettricità) won the construction contract and the dam was completed in 1959. Once finished it was the largest in the world standing at 261.2 meters high and the concrete arch structure had the capacity of 169 million m3. The dam was created to produce hydroelectricity to the region. Recently however the dam had been the subject of much criticism and rumour, mainly coming from Erto, a small province upstream. Over the last few years, even during the construction of the dam, a number of landslides, especially one in 1960, plus earth movements in the area, had caused some concern. A few months ago monitoring measures were put in place and the lake was lowered. Some people who lived closer to the dam had apparently moved away. Bepi had managed to get an exclusive interview with Mario Pancini the head engineer of the dam project and ask him about the rumours. The person the government blamed afterwards. Bepi had been trying to push his former boss Carlo to print the article and expose the threats. Carlo had resisted his constant nagging in the knowledge that the Italian Government had previously sued journalist such as Tina Merlin who tried to report on the issues. The Italian Government already disliked the newspaper and had accused it of political bias. Bepi hoped that he would have an easier time getting the report into the paper now Mario was in charge. He knew the story was important; he himself lived in Longarone- a small town situated just downstream from the dam. The locals had little knowledge of the threat it posed even amidst the rumours.

Bepi could see the dam from his kitchen window. If only he knew the grave danger the entire community of Longarone and the neighbouring villages of Pirago, Rivalta, Villanova, Codissago, and Faè were in. As he poured that vino he heard a roaring sound, and rushed into the sitting room where his wife Maria was, to check everything was ok. Their daughter was staying at her grandparents in Padova so the noise couldn’t be her. Maria, was fine but the sound was getting louder. Then came a rush of air like the blast from a jet engine. He turned just in time to see the giant wave crash over the dam and rush towards them. It swept through the town and surrounding villages destroying everything in its path! Bepi hit his head on something hard and was out cold. . .

He woke to utter destruction, water surrounded him, he had been carried KM’s by the wave, and Maria was nowhere to be seen. The wave itself had only lasted around 3-4 minutes in total but water from the reservoir continued to drain over the side of the dam for what felt like hours. The Panic set in! He ran back towards the town shouting and calling for his wife, but quickly tired and became disorientated. He collapsed in a heap propped up against a fence, one of the only things that remained intact.

The wave that had caused the destruction as it crashed down the Piave River Valley consisting of around 30 million cubic meters of water which rose 250 meters above the dam. It had been caused by a major landslide; a mass of rock 2.6×108 m3 wide which sheered away from the mount Toc slope. Travelling at speeds of up to 90 km per hour, about two hundred and sixty million cubic metres of rock fell into the Vajont reservoir. The landslide itself lasted all of 45 seconds. Just before the land fall the reservoir was measuring at a level of 700.24 or 25 meters below capacity. Test had previously been carried out on the dam and surrounding valleys but never had such drastic figures been predicted.

Bepi awoke to rescue workers shaking him. Everything was covered by a sea of mud and the smell was nauseating. On discovering Bepi, however, the workers were celebrating and shouting “egli è vivo” (He is alive). As he came round he could hear sirens and people were busy in the distance. “Maria!!!” he cried, where was she? Was she ok? He had to find her. He tried to get up but the rescue workers pushed him back to the ground. “Whoa lì abbiamo bisogno di ottenere la testa guardò prima” (Whoa there, we need to get your head looked at first). The doctor soon came, plainly exhausted, Bepi wanted to check the time but his watch was missing.

He asked the doctor what the time was, it was.


“What, I’ve been here all night?”

“A bit longer than that actually, today is Saturday! It’s a miracle you have survived.”

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This visit was just as boring as normal however grandpa seemed a bit more alert today. He was sat up in his chair, he actually smiled when we walked in which was pretty close to a miracle. For some reason Mama however seemed a bit agitated? The nurse stuck her head through the door and asked how we were getting on. Protocol I suppose but she looked more tired today than usual.

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Bepi was in shock. Had he been here all that time? Where was Maria, had she survived to? He felt sick with that thought. Military personnel arrived and ferried him to safety. Due to the lack of survivors he was seen straight away. At the medical centre there seemed to be many people just milling around. He called to a nurse, who seemed pleased to have something to do. That was until she was asked where everyone was. Maria hadn’t survived. Her face dropped and her eyes widened as she explained the true effects of the disaster.

Her name was on the list of identified bodies. She may have died before the wave had even impacted the town. The coroner said the force had crushed her internal organs and her death was almost instant. It was a miracle that Bepi had survived given the magnitude of Maria’s injuries.

Once discharged Bepi headed back to see what remained of his home. He walked down what he thought was his street, nothing was recognisable. The very few survivors seemed numb and in a state of shock as they wandered around trying to find what was left of their homes. He came across Carmela Buttet, a lady who lived just down the way from him. She was on her hands and knees digging at the mud that covered where here house had once stood. Soldiers looked on but could not calm her. She was crying out for her son, he and his whole family including three small children buried beneath her.

Two months after the disaster the government had plans in place to rebuild the town in a different location. The few survivors had refused to move. This was their home, they had grown up here, memories were there and they didn’t want to leave their loved ones. People thought they were mad but this land belonged to them and with sheer grit and determination they remained optimistic. It was a long hard process. Even after a year they still had no electricity. The government persisted however and in 1971 the new town which was a 40 minute drive south east of Longarone was completed. The place was drab and had no character but the conditions were much better than those they had been living in for the past 8 years. Some people, especially those who were getting older and tired moved to the new settlement. Longarone was eventually rebuilt, however, now it is mainly populated by outsiders, people who moved there after the disaster, those who don’t quite understand the true spirit of the town, how it used to be in its former glory. Years of legal action also took place post disaster with Sage and the government insisting the disaster was a natural unavoidable event, Mario Pancini was called to stand trial however he took his own life weeks before the hearing.

A cemetery was created for the bodies identified. It was a cold impersonal place, a few years ago the Italian government renovated it, now every life lost on that dreadful night is represented but the stones that lie there have no relation to the remains that lie bellow. Churches were also build to remember the victims, with one featuring a memorial wall with the names of all the victims. Bepi did not visit the memorial wall often but when he did he would not go up close. That was until the last time he visited, the day that would have been his and Maria’s 50th wedding anniversary. There she was “Maria Pia Zanfron (1932)” her name near to the end of the long list.

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We had stayed here for an extra half an hour compared to normal; mama seemed upset, she left the room with the nurse leaving me alone with grandpa. As soon as mama was out the room grandpa signalled to me. He was pointing at his bedside table. I went over, and he whispered to me to look inside. I opened the draw and in there was what looked like a diary. I opened the book and it was full of newspaper clippings, notes and pictures. I looked at Grandpa he smiled and gestured me closer, I went to him, he placed his hands on mine which still held the book. He looked me right in the eyes and said “La Vertià” (the truth). I looked at him and then to the book.

Mama called, it was time to go, and I shoved the book into my school bag trying not to get it muddy from my trainers. I turned to smile at grandpa but he was back staring out the window as normal. Mama came in and said goodbye. We headed home, I pulled the book out in the car and started reading the first clipping, and that was when I first saw it- “written by Bepi Zafron” I turned to the next page, it was there again, and again and again… the whole book, both published and unpublished work. The main focus had been the Vajont dam including the interview with Mario Pancini.

Looking out of the window Bepi felt the relief rush through him, he was laughing with happiness, it almost felt as if he was floating. He could hear his Maria calling to him as he smiled, it was getting clearing and he breathed. Finally at peace he closed his eyes… for the last time.