We can honestly say we have been blessed with the privilege of visiting Vernazza BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER this tragic event…we are forever changed.
On October 25th, 2011, my husband (Preston) and I (Andrea) along with 5 of our friends set out to explore one of the most beautiful places in the world, Vernazza Italy, also known as the jewel of the Italian Riviera. We arrived in Vernazza around noon and strolled down the picturesque street to photo the beautiful harbor. We decided to eat lunch at Gambero’s when it started raining. Although the rain was really pouring down, we decided to head back uphill towards the train station in order to catch the train to Monterossa. Within minutes the water rose to a couple of inches as it ran down the steep hill. I was taking video of a small truck that was parked on the side of the narrow, winding street and noticed the water was raging up against the back of the truck with enough force to push the truck down the street. I thought it would be a wise idea to stop on the opposite side of the street and video an amazing shot of this truck being swept out to sea. Within minutes, we realized we needed to cross the street and move to higher ground. As we ventured across the street, the water rose from approximately 5 to 12 inches and instantly swept my feet out from under me. I found myself being washed down the street about 30 feet with Preston chasing after me. As the water rushed over my head, he grabbed the collar of my jacket and pulled me out from behind the truck. A few more feet and I would have been sucked under the truck and eventually down the street into the harbor. An Italian policeman helped us up to the steps and we proceeded to walk approximately 20 yards to the train platform (station).
We gathered with 12-15 other tourist, all in shock at how fast the water was rising. Viewing up the street, we noticed the water had now rose to 10+ feet, raging down the same street we had just walked an hour before. At that time we noticed the train tunnel filling with debris, then a gas line blew spewing water 20-30 feet in the air. The smell was so strong we could hardly breathe. I think all of us quickly realized we were caught in a very dangerous situation. Preston and I tried to bust down the door or at least break out the window at the station to protect ourselves from a possible explosion but it would not budge (the next day we noticed the door and window had been busted out with the force of the water). Two local Italian men were yelling at us to do something as the water was rising up to the train platform. We were not about to run into the train tunnel that was filling with water and debris, and the water was now washing over the train platform, so we decided to run towards the spewing gas. 12 of us were lifted over a rail through a small door where we found ourselves in someone’s kitchen! We were then led down many steps and ended up in a 14th century church which overlooked the harbor (on the opposite side where we dined for lunch). The view was something I will never forget. The cars that were swept down the street, out to sea looked like toys and were instantly chewed up as they were dumped in the harbor. We spent about 5 hours in this church and were asked to write down our names before we were rushed out of the church, uphill, in the dark. All we could hear was the raging water. We had no idea where we were going or what was about to happen. After climbing about 200 steps (or what seemed to be 1000) we ended up at an old converted church which now serves as the local government/police station.
For the next 15 hours we listened to the raging water and prayed the church walls would hold. Rescuers brought in survivors throughout the night, including our friends! I failed to mention that we got separated while heading to the train station. They told their survival story which brought tears to everyone in the church. Someone led them to an abandoned restaurant/bar down by the harbor and told them they would be safe here. A few minutes later a 5 foot wall of mud and debris crashed through the walls pushing them against the back wall. 4 of them were pushed up against a door which allowed them to escape up to the next level but our other friend was pushed up against a window that overlooked the now raging water below. He crawled through the window, wrapped his neck scarf around his wrist and the bars of the window, and dangled over the raging water. He was minutes from letting go when someone on the floor above him tossed down a piece of carpet that he used to climb to the 2nd floor to safety. They were then rescued and joined us along with the other tourist and local survivors.
We were able to return to Florence the next afternoon on a small railway that was cleared for emergency personnel. We can honestly say we have been blessed with the privilege of visiting Vernazza BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER this tragic event.
Although our heart breaks for the people who lost everything that day, especially the ones who lost their lives, we are forever changed. What an amazing 24 hours; We started the morning with such excitement and anticipation of our visit, witnessing one of the most beautiful places in the world, which quickly turned into sheer panic, fearing for our lives, to relief when we were reunited with our friends. As the sun came up we were overcome with such sadness and the realization that many lives were lost and the entire town, now buried in over 13 feet of mud and debris, may never recover.
In lieu of Christmas gifts this year, we are making a donation to the “save Vernazza” campaign. We ask that if you are sending Christmas cheer our way, please make it in form of a donation to the people of Vernazza. www.savevernazza.com
Harlingen, TX USA