The conviction that I had not 5 minutes before left me as quickly as the blue water in front of the bar turned to brown.
It was a gloomy October Tuesday and despite the drizzle I awoke happy knowing that it was the last day of our work week. Marco had asked me to change shifts with him that day but I said no, it being Michela’s night off we were planning a fun evening out.
I arrived to work a little before 9:00am and there were already several tables occupied. It was just Sandra, Davide and myself that morning as our cook had the day off. It was Davide in the kitchen, Sandra at the tables and myself at the bar. Breakfast went well, eggs and bacon for almost all as it was 90% foreign tourists that morning. As the breakfast crowd started to thin out Massimo showed up. It was supposed to be Carmen’s shift, but given the specific date (the 2 year anniversary of daughter Camilla’s death) we understood why Massimo was there.
Usually there is a lull in patronage from 11:00-12:00, but as the rain continued to fall the clients continued to arrive. The Blue Marlin being the only bar with ample seating inside, there was around 25 clients plus us four employees. Michela arrived for a light brunch with the two dogs and then went home to prepare lunch for Isabel, as she was expected to be returning from school at 1:30pm.
The drizzle from the morning had turned into a steady rain. The clients we had were quite content to linger inside the warm bar and listen to music as opposed to venturing out into the rain. Midday brought with it a harder rain and increased water levels in the street. I have seen several centimeters of running water in front of the bar before so i wasn’t that worried. Most of us were actually taking photos or videos.
That tranquility quickly evaporated as the water level continued to rise and increase in speed. The tables and chairs outside the restaurant started to slide slowly downhill. At that point Massimo and I went outside to stack the tables and chairs close to the wall to keep them from being swept away (some of us still taking videos or pics). In my infinite wisdom I took off my shoes and put them in our locker room to keep the dry (I found them two weeks later, not dry). So there I was, soaking wet and shoeless, jeans rolled up to my knees and in a t-shirt.
The steady rain turned to torrential downpour and no one could believe the amount of water coming from the sky or the violent river that was rapidly forming before our eyes. The mood in the bar changed from the enjoyment of watching the power of nature to the fear of becoming consumed by it. Voices started rising a bit and questions were being asked. “Has this ever happened before? Is there an upstairs? Is there a back door? Are we safe here?” I was telling everyone to stay calm and we would figure something out. Even with the water about 30 centimeters high i was convinced that we would be ok if we just stayed in the bar. We were mopping and bailing the water out of the bar at this time and I was singing to myself Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising”.
The conviction that I had not 5 minutes before left me as quickly as the blue water in front of the bar turned to brown. A whirlpool was forming 15 feet in front of the bar with scooters, trash cans (I distinctly remember the dolphin shaped trash bin from the playground floating by) and soon after an ape (a small 3 or 4 wheel pick up truck). We could smell gas and by this point the water was about 40 centimeters high and increasing in speed. I told Massimo what he already knew, “dobbiamo uscire di qui!” (“we need to get out of here!”). Seconds prior, someone was asking Davide if the angled part of the ceiling had stairs behind it. The answer most thankfully was yes.
Some 20-25 years ago the Blue Marlin had an upstairs dining room that was accessed by way of a staircase just to the left as one entered the bar. Over time, the upstairs was sold to make for a storage area for the restaurant Trattoria da Sandro across the street and the archway that led to the stairwell had been bricked up, a coke refrigerator now standing in its place.
As water began to infiltrate the bar (even though we had bolted shut all four entrance doors) Massimo remembered the old entrance and asked me to help him move the refrigerator. There behind it stood the old brick wall, luck for us made of the hollow brownish brick kind rather than the solid red brick, which is much harder to break through. The fuse box for the upstairs storage area was placed in that wall, not hung on the brick but nailed to a piece of wood. Massi grabbed a nearby framing hammer (one that he had been meaning to throw out for months and thankfully never had) and began to chip the brick around the wood. The fuse box came loose and we placed it on top of the refrigerator. Massimo then continued on the hole, placed a chair in front, and we had our make-shift escape hatch.
I was the first through and landed in water a little lower than knee high. Massimo on one side helping people onto the chair, I on the opposite side, taking them in my arms, placing the on the ground and telling them to go up the stairs. The problem was that people were scared and rushing too much, passing me their bags (and at that point I realized I left my own bag behind… that bag being one of the only things that I have left of my mothers belongings) and then throwing themselves into my arms. After 4 or 5 people coming through the hole like this I started barking orders to everyone. “Pass your bags to the person behind you. Then, with your left leg come through the hole, duck your head through and then fall back into my arms”. I kept repeating this and the evacuation began to go smoother. That is, until one client about halfway through the evacuation came to the hole.
On the shorter side, but considerably overweight, it was difficult for her to simply climb up on the chair. She started to come through the hole like I instructed, with her left leg first. Then, she tried to duck her head and couldn’t. She tried again, then another time and said “I can’t”. She could not bend far enough to get through the hole. So, I grabbed the back of her neck and bent her body for her and then pulled her back onto me. She came thorough, but by now the water was up to my mid thigh and there was still about 15 people in the bar. At this point, a phrase popped into my head “be quick, but don’t rush”. I can not remember where I heard it, but it seemed quite applicable then and so I started to repeat that as well. I knew we wouldn’t make it out if we didn’t pick up the pace, but I didn’t want people to be panicked and rush as that would cause more problems.
The water at this point was up to my crotch and the exterior door I was next to blew open with a gush of water and hit me on the right side, knocking me to the left. I smashed my right forearm against the door, jamming it shut. My right arm was holding the door and with my left I kept pulling people through the hole. All the while, the water kept rising, the door pushing harder against me and people continuing through the hole. I called for some one to help with about 5 people to go, because I am no longer keeping the door shut, but more so keeping the jet of water spraying in from becoming a gushing spillway. Someone came down and helped me with the last few people as I tried to keep the water at bay. Massimo was the last one through as the water was up to my belly button. We ran up the stairs, leaving the door to blow open and flood the stairwell.
We all made it safely up to the large storage area above the Blue Marlin, and there was no higher ground to climb to from there. A motley crew we were if I have ever seen one. Five or six nations represented, with children, teenagers, 20 somethings to 70 somethings…all safe for the time being. But the water kept rising and people were beginning to cry, children as well as adults. I looked out the window and saw Michela for the first time since the morning and I wanted to cry too. She was safe, 5 stories up on the other side of the street. I yelled to her, asking about Isabel, was told she was safe in La Spezia. Then I asked about our dogs and was told they too were safe in the house. We all felt relatively out of harms way one flight up, so we took a collective deep breath and relaxed a bit. The water by now was five or six feet high but rising quickly. We were another ten feet above the water but a bit of panic began to set in with the group. I again tried to calm everyone by telling them that we will be ok and we were searching for a way to get to higher ground. People tried their phones, calling the police, the town hall, etc. while others tried screaming to whomever may have heard us. I was shivering at his point and looked around for any dry clothes available. I find a way too tiny woman’s jacket and a pair of shoes 3 sizes too small and jam myself into both.
We were all watching helplessly as the water continued to rise. I felt myself trying to will the rain to stop to no avail. We were in a large area with 4 or 5 rooms so I went about searching for a door out or up. Nothing. The water kept rising and for the first time that day I personally started to get a bit scared because even though we were one floor up I knew that there was no where else to go from there. And the water was filling the street faster than a bath tub. Across the street I saw Mateo with his grandparents on a second story balcony. He was climbing up to the roof and had fashioned a harness with some bed sheets to lift his grandparents up to the roof. At this point the water was about 50 centimeters lower than the first floor. I looked in the stairwell and it was flooded. There was no escape. Then it stopped raining and the water started to go down like someone had unclogged a drain. The water was going down faster than it had risen and a bit of hope started to creep in. People started to hug, smile and laugh. We started forming a plan to go to the train station or up one of the alleyways to the city hall center. It was then that Massimo said he was going to try to get to his house and to Carmen. He went down and out the door and disappeared into the alleyways. I started to instruct the people on what to do and told them to get ready to move.
Then it started raining again. The water stopped draining and once again began to rise. I wasn’t sure what to do at that point, do we try to ride it out or do I take to the ever-rising water with a mixed group of 25 people? Fortunately the decision was made for me. At that moment a rescue crew of locals (Francesco D’ambra, Giacomo Amore, Michael H, Emanuele Viacava, Mauro Mazzitelli) came to our aid. How they got there I am not sure, but they told me of their plans to evacuate. They broke open a door a few doorfronts down. That door led to a stairwell, that led to another door, that open up to the alleyway in back of the buildings. I had no idea that there existed these mazes of stairways connecting the main street with the back alleyways and thankfully they did. They wanted us to follow them up to the comune (city hall complex). I translated their directions to everyone and asked all to check that whomever they came with was still with them. We were all accounted for. I had the guys check the bathroom and other room just in case. We started down the stairs, being careful not to touch the wall on the left or the water (Massi had place the broken half of the door flat as a makeshift bridge) because there was still the fuse box there, now bobbing in the muddy water. I waited until the last person had gone down and I grabbed a sack of used tablecloths. As I passed our escape hatch I briefly looked inside the Blue Marlin and all I saw was a meter and a half of mud and the bar turned on its side.
On our way up to higher ground I encountered the same overweight woman who had trouble getting through the hole. She was gasping for breath and collapsed on a doorstep. We were only about 50 meters from the church near the city hall (now the rescue center) so I introduced myself. I remember her telling me she was from Minnesota. I took her hand in mine and told her to get up.. She did and then promised to lose weight when she got back home. She was half sobbing, half gasping so I kept her talking and before she knew it we were at the church. There were 50-60 people already there and more arriving with blankets, towels, and any food that they had. I opened the sack of tablecloths and started to distribute them.
I will spare you the details of being up there between the church and the comune, of desperately trying to call Michela, of wanting to cross the river to get to her, of looking for a place to sleep, searching for food and drinks and other assorted details as I fear that I have become too epic in my tale. However, I will leave you with this: Our story is one of hundreds. We are fortunate to be alive to tell them. What happened on October 25, 2011 in Vernazza was tragic and terrorizing, there is no doubt about that. But we are fortunate to be here today to look back on it with the ability to share our accounts. Yes, the “what ifs” can be haunting.
What if Carmen came to work as planned instead of Massimo, unaware of the wall behind the refrigerator? What if Massimo had thrown out the hammer as he had been planning to for months?
What if I had switched shifts with Marco and hadn’t been there to explain in English what we needed to do when more than half of those trapped were non-Italian speakers? Thankfully, these are questions that never need be answered.