The people of Vernazza rescued me, and showed me that there are truly wonderful, selfless people in this world.
When a traumatic event happens, and people ask you afterwards to tell them about it, you (at least I) give them the “Readers’ Digest” version. Those elements may certainly be the most dramatic and the easiest for others to relate to. But they are not what keeps you up at night afterwards. It’s the fearful thoughts that you had in those moments, those unspoken, difficult-to-articulate concepts. Those impossible to say out loud thoughts that plague you in the night. Some of them may even be irrational, but that does not matter. In your dreams they are as imminent as the dawn…or the nightfall.
Last October, I accompanied my mother on a Mediterranean cruise in honor of her 80th birthday. My father had died the year previous and I felt compelled to celebrate my mother’s life in a very special way. Hence, I left my husband and family at home and embarked on this adventure with her. Fortunately for me, my mother is a fairly seasoned traveler and quite adventuresome given that she is 80 years old. However, with that age comes some significant physical limitations and after 10 days traveling in close confines with her I was ready for a day to myself to explore and do exactly what I wanted to do. So, because the ship was docked at Livorno, Italy for 2 days, I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to take the first day to explore a region that I had heard much about from friends and always wanted to see for myself — the Cinque Terre.
Mom was quite happy to spend the day relaxing on the ship because we’d had some very busy, physically exhausting days up until then. I told her to expect me back for a late dinner at about 7:00 p.m.
Arising at 6:00 in the morning, I spent the first hour in the gym completing my regular routine. I had been getting up at 6:00 and working out for about 1½ hours each day since we had begun our cruise. Then I quietly showered, dressed and left the ship at about 8:00 a.m. to take the bus to the train station, and then the train to La Spezia and on to Riomaggiore; (the first town in the Cinque Terre traveling from the south to north). I suppose that I should explain that the region of the Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera, comprised of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (“Light Blue Trail”), connects the five villages. Vernazza was founded in the year 1000 AD. As I was to come to appreciate — the Romans sure knew how to build structures to last.
10:00 a.m. — When I arrived at Riomaggiore the weather was overcast, so the first place I stopped was the tourist bureau. They informed me which trails were open for walking, and I bought my trail pass. I started out on the first part from Riomaggiore to Manarola which is a very easy stroll. But, just as I was starting, around the first corner a thunder and lightning storm rolled in. (You should know that, of the few fears that I have, lightning is in the top 3. During my time as an emergency room nurse I had 2 patients who had been struck by lightning. The one that survived had long term bizarre health consequences.) I chose what I thought was the sensible approach, to return to the train station to wait out this storm, which did pass after about half an hour.
11:00ish — Not to waste my one day of true freedom I quickly proceeded to walk the trail between Riomagoire and Manarola, then take the train to Corniglia. I walked up from the train to the town and found the trail head between Cornigia and Vernazza.
Noon — There were no signs that anything was predicted or amiss with the trail. Although I was by myself, I fully expected to cross paths with several other hikers because I had been told that this was a well-travelled trail by tourists. In Canada I would not even think of hiking alone in the wilderness. I am not, by nature, a timid person, and I am in good physical condition. Plus I had in my day pack an energy bar, water bottle and small first aid kit — which, to me, seemed appropriate for the hiking venue that I was taking on.
The weather was overcast with bits of blue sky showing but very pleasant and warm. As I started out on the trail the birds were chirping. As I hiked around several olive groves and other orchards there was an amazing aroma which I could not place. It smelled like it must be some kind of flower but I did not see any fresh flowering species. Perhaps it was the olive trees?
As I continued my walk the trail became narrower and less defined but I was not concerned because I had friends who had hiked this trail and described it this way plus I had a map that, while it was not detailed, did outline the trail and the road that traversed the Cinque Terre up above. I was having a beautiful hike in an amazing place and I was overjoyed to be doing that. The sense of freedom from all that constrained me was incredible. By golly, I felt so alive in those moments! Little did I know that in the very near future “alive” would be my very goal! Because this area is so lush with olive groves and orchards it was impossible to see out over the horizon. When it started raining there was no way for me to see the extent of what was coming my way.
12:30 p.m. — It had only been raining a few moments when I started to hear thunder which corresponded to a huge increase in the volume of rain. Soon there were very visible flashes of lightening followed moments later by loud cracks of thunder. The trail was taking me out onto cliffs overlooking the ocean and I was feeling very exposed and vulnerable to Mother Nature. I quickened my pace knowing that the situation was deteriorating and I needed to get somewhere safe. The visibility became terrible and somehow I lost the trail and found myself in a terraced olive grove. Trees were coming down around me, having been struck by lightning. The grass was tall and swirling around my legs, cutting right into them as I hurried along. There wasn’t a sign of other life around, and since I couldn’t even see where the trail might be, I knew I had to double back. Soon I found a well-worn path and followed it up to the road — I never was able to find the original path I was on.
Looking at my map, I realized that this road connected all the towns and even if I had gotten turned around in direction, if I followed this road I would come to a town. Several trees had come down on the road. The storm showed no sign of passing, and by this time I was feeling really anxious. I turned to the left and ran the 100 meter dash for about 2 kms! As the road was winding down towards the town of Vernazza there were areas where the water had really accumulated carrying lots of mud with it. “Please God, don’t let there be a mudslide. My family will never know where to look for me” I pleaded silently as I ran as fast as I could at times through mid-calf deep puddles. By this time I was absolutely dripping wet.
1:30 p.m. — About 200 meters short of the town of Vernnaza an Italian fellow in a silver Toyota station wagon pulled over. “What are you doing out here?” he asked with an incredulous look on his face. “I got lost on the trail,” I replied. “Well, get in!” he instructed. “But I’ll get your seat all wet!” was my ridiculous response. “Get in, it will dry!” he insisted. His name was Sergio. He was on his way to Vernazza to pick his daughter up from the train station. We drove into the upper parking area and waited in the car. The rain was pelting down so hard you couldn’t even see the train station, which was only about 50 meters down the road.
I should explain that you are not able to drive right down into the town of Vernazza. The streets are too narrow for cars — having been built long before cars even existed. A paved parking area bordered the upper side of town. There were other cars, vans and even a small bus parked in that paved area. Several people were sitting in their vehicles, presumably also waiting for someone.
2:00 p.m. — After a short while, I decided that I had imposed on Sergio’s good nature for long enough. I left the car and ran into the first open door which was only about 10 meters away — the Post Office. My plan was to wait there until the worst of the storm had passed and then find a restaurant to have some lunch in and dry off, after which I would jump back on the train and return to Livorno. I’d had enough hiking for one day!
After about 10 minutes though, the storm was only increasing in intensity with rain like I have never seen in my life before. It came down in sheets. That statement is significant, since I lived for several years on the north coast of British Columbia, where I saw many storms with torrential rain coming down sideways due to gale force winds. I could start to feel the tension in the air as the postmaster began pacing and looking out the window.
Soon he turned to me and said, “I’m going to take you next door to an apartment building to wait and then I’m going to close this up and go there too.” He led me to a four story apartment building next door where a few other local Italian fellows were also gathered. The rain really started to build up on the road now and they were moving large planters out and away from the buildings. Shortly after, Sergio and his daughter also joined us in that foyer.
2:30ish p.m. — The rain continued and water continued to collect on the road and build in the parking area. Sensing increasing danger, I had climbed the stairs to the landing between the first and second floor. All of a sudden the Italian men who had been keeping watch in the foyer started whistling and shouting to the people sitting in their vehicles to get out and run. Soon we were joined on the foyer by another ten people who had abandoned their vehicles, still running with the blinkers and lights on. It was only moments after they arrived that a torrent of water filled with mud, rocks and other debris came raging down the street. Within about 5 minutes the vehicles started travelling down the street on their own, being pushed by the force of the water and mud.
Water and mud also began rushing into the foyer, forcing everyone further and further up the stairs. I was at the head of the pack, on high alert with all survival instincts fully engaged. Suddenly about six women came out of an apartment on the third floor, glasses of wine in hand, and chatting away. I was to learn that they were work mates from the USA who had rented that apartment for a few days. They didn’t seem to understand at that moment how serious things were and found this whole event very exciting. That was to change in an instant.
I was standing on the landing between the second and third floor, listening to their excited chatter, when all of a sudden we heard a loud swooshing noise followed by the smell of gas. It was obvious what had happened — a gas line had burst, spewing natural gas fumes into the building. Within seconds the gas smell was so strong that my eyes began to burn. We opened all the windows and everyone was shouting for the cigarettes to be put out. Several of the American ladies started to cry. It certainly looked pretty grim to me at that moment as well.
So, there I was, standing in front of a large open window, shivering like crazy, considering what my next move should be. Looking down, there was a torrent of rushing water, mud and other debris that had encircled the building. To jump would have been certain death. The thought of spontaneous combustion and incineration was not very appealing, either. I considered that, since I was dripping wet, perhaps I would not be completely incinerated but may be just burned. Then, because I am a nurse, I remembered what it was like to suffer with burns.
What I was left with was the choice to stand in from of this big open window, shivering, facing out towards the terraced hillside and praying that there would not be an explosion (and if there was one, that I’d be blown out onto the terrace, and that since I was soaking wet, with my face turned away from the building, I would be spared horrible burns). Amazing the ideas you cling to in those moments of sheer terror.
As I was looking out I saw an older fellow walking along the terrace outside towards a small square building with no windows. My fist reactive thought was, “What are you doing out there? Get inside!” (though, at that moment, I was not particularly lucky to be inside). But then it dawned on me that perhaps it might be the town utilities building, and he was going there to shut off the gas. That seems to have been the case, since the smell of gas stopped shortly after, although I was never truly certain.
One of the American gals came to me and told me that her astrologer had predicted that she would return safe from this holiday. I’m sure that she had meant for that to reassure me. I steeled myself and responded that I hadn’t made it off the hillside only to die here. Looking back on that statement I’m not sure if I had meant that more for her — or my own — benefit.
Several of us had found our way up to a room facing the front street on the third floor and watched as the cars (one of them belonging to Sergio), vans and even small buses were pushed down the small street and out into the ocean by the force of the water and mud. It was as if they were matchbox toys, not real vehicles. I felt so sick for Sergio and his daughter standing there helplessly, watching their vehicle swept away — especially after the kindness he had shown me.
By this time I was shivering like crazy, and really cold, so I squeezed myself into a corner to try to get out of the breeze that came from all the open windows. Closing them was not an option because of the fear of gas fumes. To make matters worse I thought I could feel the floor beneath me swaying under my feet. This was a very disturbing sensation because it could have meant that the building was being moved off its foundation by the force of the water and mud. I kept trying to remind myself that I had just spent the last ten days on a ship, and it was likely that motion I was still feeling. But my mind kept playing back all the news hour videos of houses being swept away in other mudslides. Not wanting to incite further panic, I leaned over to a young fellow from Texas, whose name was Jaimie, and quietly asked him if he could feel the same movement. His eyes widened to saucers. He stood still for a few minutes then gave me a big smile, and reassured me that it was likely residual ships motion that I was feeling.
I became aware of a young lady (about late 20s) who was watching her van get washed into oblivion. She was a private tour guide who was there with two couples. Later, she told me that her insurance only covers collisions and not situations like this. I felt so sorry for her, losing such a big chunk of her economic future. How would she ever be able to recoup those losses, especially in this depressed world economy? Her name was Nicki, and I’ll never forget that distraught look on her face.
As it turns out, the two couples with Nicki were from the same cruise ship as me. Both of the ladies were from the USA and were longtime friends. They had become separated from their husbands and were very concerned about where they were, or if they were even alive. They had all been enjoying “the best lunch we ever had” when the ladies (with Nicki) had decided to do some window shopping, leaving the fellows behind to finish their wine. They had been waiting for the fellows in Nick’s van when it all started, and they had to abandon the van and rush into the foyer of the apartment. Virginia (Virgie) and Shellie were their names.
3:30 p.m. — Fortunately a wonderful couple, Mr. and Mrs. Columbo, who lived on the 4th floor came and took us to their apartment. Mara (the lady of the house) gave me a long sleeve, lightweight sweater and another cashmere sweater to replace my sopping shirt and fleece jacket, plus a dry pair of socks and a towel to dry myself as best as I could. That left only my wet capri pants, but the material they were made off would dry quickly. She also made me some tea with some of the bottled water she had. I was finally able to stop shivering but it would be hours before I truly warmed up. Shellie gave me a granola bar to eat, but I saved it for later. Who knows when we will have food or water next?
While sitting in Mara’s living room I looked at pictures of Mara’s beautiful family: a son who is a lawyer, his wife and baby, and a stunning daughter. Fortunately they lived elsewhere, so at least she did not have to worry about their safety. Mara and her husband paced back and forth, stopping frequently to look out the window. It was awful to see their distress as they witnessed friends and neighbors homes being decimated by the water and mud. Every once in a while I would give Mara a hug. Since she spoke a small amount of English and I speak only a few words of Italian, it was the only way I had to let her know how I felt.
Eventually about 25 people ended up at Mara’s: the American gals from the third floor, several local folks, Jaimie, Nicki, Shellie and Virgie and myself (the lone Canadian). The Italians collected mostly in the kitchen, leaving the living room to the rest of us. We were curled up in chairs, on the sofa, on the floor — wherever we could find space. One fellow from another apartment (Tony) brought us a bunch of wool blankets. It was only after I was wrapped in one of them for several hours that I began to warm up.
5:00 p.m. — We were all sitting around sharing stories of where we from and how we came to be at Mara’s place. When it came to my turn to explain what had happened to me, one of the gals asked me, “Who are you here with?” to which I responded, ” Oh, I’m by myself.” Suddenly there was a collective gasp in the room and a voice asked, “You mean you’re all alone?” It was a “light bulb” moment for me and I could feel my chin and lip start to quiver and my eyes well up with tears at the thought of how alone I really was. It had not occurred to me up until then.
Time passed and people kept trying to reach others with their cell phones. At times they would get through for brief periods. It would take Virgie and Shellie about 10 hours to make contact with their husbands. Interestingly, the Americans who had iPhones were able to get text messages out quite well. I heard them chatting about getting CNN there and appearing on Good Morning America (perhaps they were in the media industry)?
I had left my Blackberry on the ship, so had no way to reach my mother to let her know I was alright. As the evening wore on she would become more and more concerned because I had not returned. I mentioned this to several people there. Nicki tried really hard to reach the port agent and the emergency number that the cruise ship instructed us to always take with us when leaving the ship. Many times she was not able to get a connection. Even when she did, there was no answer. The thought of my mother being anxious about my whereabouts was weighing heavily on my mind. Nicki must have sensed this because she seemed to take it on as her personal mission. She called the number repeatedly throughout the night and left messages whenever an answering machine came on.
9:00 p.m. — As the night wore on, the torrential rain, thunder and lightning continued. It would not let up for about 13 hours. Every once in a while someone would open the window and look out. I’m not sure what we were expecting to see. You could tell by the constant sound of raging water (similar to standing beside Niagara Falls) that nothing had magically improved. Just before midnight, we spotted some search and rescue workers walking around and checking out the buildings. They shouted out to us that the storm would end about 2:00 a.m. We chuckled at their precise prediction and optimism. As it happens, they were right on.
Midnight — People were trying to snuggle down to get whatever sleep possible. Since I was sitting on an uncomfortable straight-backed chair, Mara took me into a bedroom that had a thick rug on which I could lay down. She closed the door, leaving me alone and in the dark. From that moment, my mind struggled to maintain some sense of calmness and rationality. Laying there wrapped in the wool blanket, but still feeling quite cold, I thought about my mom: what had she heard? What was she worrying about? What would she do? Would she stay on the ship and hope that I could catch up to it in Monaco? Or, would she disembark and wait for me in Livorno? Would she become so distressed that it might precipitate a heart attack or a stroke? I desperately tried to send her physic messages telling her that I was OK and to stay on the ship — that I would find a way to meet up with it. Then my thoughts went to my daughters. What had they heard? I thought about my Britany, my leftie with the “artistic personality” who was just finishing her first practicum in early elementary school teaching. I could visualize how distraught she would be, trying to reach her father in hunting camp to tell him. (note to self: both of us should not be away at the same time in separate places). Her twin sister, Jordana, who was at University of Alberta, would be the most practical one, who considered the logical explanations. Then my first born, Rhayna, finishing her final practicum in middle school teaching, and how this might throw her off her game and how much she needed to be successful in this venture. I thought about my husband and soul mate, Tim. Was he aware of anything? If he received a message from a distraught Britany, would he be racing back to Prince George, perhaps on icy roads, to get back?
I lay there listening to the sound of the storm and the raging water around me (even through closed windows) feeling so alone and helpless. I could feel my lips quiver, my eyes tear up and my shoulders start to shake. At that moment, when I felt that I was just going to break down and dissolve into a crying babbling mess, an inner voice spoke to me:
“Joanne, you’re OK. Pull yourself together. You are an Emergency Nurse.”
“This is not the first life threatening situation you’ve been intimately involved in. This time — just because it happens to be YOUR situation — this is no time to fall apart.”
“Everyone else can take care of themselves, there is nothing you can do to help them. What you need to do is take care of yourself, and survive this.”
Where do those inner voices come from? Is it the logical part of our brain taking over from the emotional part? Some might suggest that a guardian angel has come to help. I could even speculate that it was the voice of my father who had died the year previous. All I know is what I heard in my brain and how much it helped me calm myself. I decided then, that I needed to be out in the living room with the others, whether I could find a place to sleep or not. Being all alone was just not doing me any good.
1:00 a.m. October 26, 2011 — I got up, returned to the living room, and found an arm chair to curl up on. Looking around the mostly sleeping group, I realized that this chair was available because Mara and her husband had given up their own bed to Shellie and Virgie. Mara and hubby had settled down to try to sleep while sitting at the kitchen table — a blanket around their shoulders and a pillow for their heads. I was thunderstruck at their generosity, because of all of us they were the eldest and likely most in need of rest.
Several of the Italian men were lying out in the hallways, covering themselves with bath towels. At that moment, it occurred to me that these people had given us — “the foreigners” — everything they had. They went without. They did it without hesitation, as if their own discomfort was nothing. It’s difficult to describe how your heart feels; watching people who have lost so much still extend all they have left to you, even at their own discomfort. Even writing this brings tears to my eyes.
Another thing is the sewage. There were almost 25 people using a toilet that could not be flushed. Several of us agreed that it would be best to throw our tissue into the garbage instead. We had yet not come to the point where we had to decide what to do in the case of a bowel movement, and I was dreading that (after all Mara’s generosity, it seemed inhumane to leave her with a toilet plugged full of excrement). How often have you gone on holidays planning how often you are going to urinate or have a BM? It became a reality for us.
4:00 a.m. — I finally drifted off for about an hour and a half. When I awoke, I looked across the room to see that Nicki had also just woken up. It was about 4:00 in the morning. A few of the Italian guys whose names I never learned (although I did hear one was named Jimmy and another Tom) were also up. They made some tea, and offered some to us as well. We only had 8 litters of water left, and had no idea how long we would have to live on this ration.
6:00 a.m. — Nicki continued to try to reach the Port Agent to get a message to my mother. Finally, a man answered. He began yelling at her for waking him up with this because he did not consider it an emergency. I really admired Nicki’s spunk at that moment — you should have heard her give him an earful back! He actually hung up on her. God bless that girl — she was determined to get my message to my mother. Undaunted, she called again at 8:00 a.m. and spoke with a different person, who assured her that the message would be delivered to the ship. Despite Nicki’s herculean efforts, I was only mildly relieved. I was really hoping that the port agent had not just given her lip service.
8:00 a.m. — As daylight started appearing, we could see that the search and rescue professionals had been busy. We stood at the window and watched them string up safety lines across the new river that had formed in front of the building. It seemed that there was enough rock in the mud that had been deposited that the ground would be stable enough to walk on, versus sinking right in to gumbo like mud. Someone tossed up a bag with several loaves of bread. We ate a couple of pieces. I was starved, so it tasted amazing to me — especially dipped in fresh olive oil.
10:00 a.m. — A couple of hours later, the Search and Rescue technicians (SAR techs) came to our building. They told us to grab our stuff and be ready to leave right away. I didn’t need to be told twice! I grabbed my wet clothing and stuffed it into my backpack, put my runners back on, and quickly made my way to the balcony on the third floor. I never even got to say goodbye and thank you to Mara. From there, we had to climb down a rickety ladder to the ground. The mud had filled in to the top of the second story. As I was standing on the balcony, waiting to be given the go ahead, I watched the SAR tech trying to convince an elderly lady in a dress to climb over as well. This lady was having nothing to do with that no matter how hard the SAR tech tried to convince her. Finally, looking rather exasperated, she looked at me. “Think you can do this?” she asked. “No problem,” I said. I whipped myself over that balcony, onto the ladder and down to the ground in about two seconds. I could hear others reassuring themselves and others — “Look at Joanne, she’s doing fine.” Again, my survival instincts kicked in. I was going to lead the pack out of there, no pussy-footing around. Once most of us were out of the building, the SAR tech took us one-by-one across the raging stream. It was only just over knee deep, but was so forceful that if you lost your footing you could still be carried away. Plus there was always the chance that you would be struck by some object that had been swept down. I held onto the safety line and walked across the river with the SAR tech on my downstream side. Once I was on the other side I really wanted to hug her, but she had many people left to bring across. A “Grazie!” had to suffice. I was really impressed with the professional behavior of the SAR techs.
I started walking up the hill to the church that had been converted to an emergency shelter, when I heard that the engine of a train had made it through the tunnel. It could take small groups to Corniglia. From there, one could jump on the regional train to La Spezia and beyond. I was desperate to get back to the ship and see my mom and know that she was OK. Giving Nick, Virgie and Shelly a hug, I raced down to the train — leaping over debris and another smaller stream — and was the last person on.
11:00 a.m. — Soon we were in Corniglia, where I chatted with a few others who had endured the previous 24 hours — much to the astonished looks from those who had stayed in Corniglia. They’d simply had a rain shower, and people had no idea of the carnage that had unfolded a mere 4½ kms away. It would take me five hours to get back to the ship because of interrupted train connections. I was starved, cold, thirsty and had a major headache — plus I was quite a sight, still wearing Mara’s clothes, including a pair of fuzzy bright lime green socks which were wet and mud-soaked, and clearly visible along with my mud-soaked legs.
All in all, I experienced about 3 hours of sheer terror followed by about 14 hours of high anxiety. Still, I felt lucky because I was able to leave. My Italian friends face a long clean-up process and financial uncertainty.
4:00 p.m. — I was finally able to relax after re-uniting with my mom, who had received a message at about 8:30 that morning that I was alive and well. The bottle of wine we shared helped as well. Boy, did that bed on the ship feel good that night!
I guess I should close by saying that I’m going to be OK. I realize that this is just one person’s experience. I can assure you that there were many others who had just as harrowing experiences during this time. We were ALL rescued by the local Italian residents of Vernazza. I would like you to think about this whenever you travel and consider how something similar and comparable could happen to you and yours.
If, by reading this, you feel moved, then I would ask you to do something. And if I may be so bold as to direct you, I would dearly appreciate if you could find some way to contribute to the lives of the people of Vernazza. It so happens that I have a few suggestions:
1) Plan your next vacation to visit and hike the Cinque Terre and stay in Vernazza. Tourism is vital to their economy.
2) Fundraise, either just a personal contribution or a community effort, and send your funds to Per Vernazza Futura or Save Vernazza.
The people of Vernazza rescued me, and showed me that there are truly wonderful, selfless people in this world.
Prince George, British Columbia