September 11 (Venice) 1970By
This, as everyone knows, is a very heavy date in the periodic table of tragedy. The year 2001 will be scarred forever by the events of that day.
In Venice, September 11, 1970 was also a day of cataclysm, but it was a tornado, rather than any manmade phenomenon, which dealt the blow.
Tornadoes are not uncommon in Italy, which stands sixth in the European ranking with an average of 12-18 a year. And that evening, a grade F4 tornado rose up in the countryside beyond Padova.
A grade F4 tornado, according to the Fujita-Pearson Tornado Intensity Scale, will bring winds between 207-260 miles per hour (333-418 km/h). The standard description of the effect at that level is “Devastating damage. Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown away some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated.”
In a country not unacquainted with natural disasters — the eruption of Vesuvius, the Messina earthquake, etc. — this stands out as one of the worst tornadoes ever to strike Italy, surpassed only by the F5 “tromba del Montello” of 1930.
According to the Gazzettino, it went like this:
At 8:45 PM a tromba d’aria, or tornado, forms in the Euganean Hills between Teolo and Revolon, about 39 miles (63 km) from Venice. It zigzags eastward, sowing destruction which I won’t list here but which leaves 300 houses damaged or destroyed and many people injured. Night has fallen.
At 9:32 PM the tornado reaches the lagoon. It rips tiles off the hospital roof on the island of La Grazia, then heads toward the Bacino of San Marco.
At 9:35 it strikes the 400-ton lagoon passenger ferry “Aquileia,” twisting and contorting the superstructure and hurling all the passengers to the floor. “A powerful depression took our breath away,” one passenger told the Gazzettino, “the captain of the motonave blew the horn three times as a signal of danger, and then all at once…all the doors and windows of the cabins at the bow and the stern were blown to bits.” One person is injured.
At 9:36, the tornado turns toward the island of Sant’ Elena, the furthest eastern lobe of the city of Venice. And there it finds a 20-ton vaporetto, motoscafo “130,” carrying about 50 passengers toward the Lido. The waves are tremendous and the wind even more so; the motoscafo, which has slowed down to stop and tie up at the dock at Sant’ Elena, rolls once to starboard, once to port, then keeps going over, taking on water and sinking in seconds. Twenty-one people are trapped inside and drown. Later it is discovered that the vaporetto, capable of carrying 143 passengers, had only five lifejackets. From survivor accounts, though, it’s not clear to me how much the lifejackets would have helped.
“It was a matter of just a few seconds,” the captain said; “the motoscafo lifted itself and then capsized, something incredible. When I found myself in the water I tried to help the people nearest to me, but it was dark and I saw very few.”
A woman recalls, “The boat rocked once or twice, then all the lights went out and I was thrown from one side to another; I heard a noise of glass breaking and water came flooding in…a current pulled me along and I felt with my fingers an open window and I was able to slip through it. When I reached the surface, there were people screaming and lifeless bodies. I managed to reach the dock and somebody pulled me out.”
“A powerful wind took my breath away,” another survivor said, “and I was thrown into the water, losing my glasses. Terrified, I managed to grab a piece of floating wood and swimming with one arm I was able to reach the Morosini Naval College, where the cadets helped me. I heard many screams around me but I couldn’t see anything.”
At 9:37, one minute after striking the vaporetto, the tornado crosses Sant’ Elena itself. Poplars and pines are uprooted, roofs torn off houses, part of the vaporetto dock is ripped away and thrown 650 feet (200 meters). The soccer stadium partially collapses, pieces flying everywhere.
It keeps moving toward the littoral near the inlet to the lagoon at San Nicolo, wreaking havoc on the peninsula of farms and beach villages around Punta Sabbioni, Ca’ Savio, and Cavallino. And then it is gone.
At 10:00 the rescue divers arrive, and work until midnight in 9 feet (3 meters) of water to recover the bodies from the sunken vessel.
The tornado lasted 58 minutes, traveled 43 miles (70 km) at an average speed of 44 mph (72 km/h), with winds at least of 136 mph (220 km/h). It left 36 victims and some 3.7 million dollars (2.5 million euros) in damage.
The Gazzettino reported the scene it left behind at Sant’ Elena:
“The neighborhood is unrecognizable; streets are covered with bricks, windows blown out, and boats thrown around.
“The ticket booth (for the vaporetto) was thrown 50 meters (164 feet) away, crumpled against a house.
“What had been a pine grove was a mass of broken tree trunks, a tangle of branches, panels, and electric wires.
“Many roofs are torn apart, leaving only the beams, the rooftiles are strewn in heaps on the ground, along with the wreckage of chimneys, beams and doors which you can’t understand where they came from.
“Near the stadium a garden wall has been destroyed but the debris has disappeared, sucked away by the tornado; the earth has been lifted in banks, it seems as if you’re walking in a plowed field.”
The long rolling rises and depressions in the earth are still there, by the way — it’s hard to guess what might have caused them, but once you know, they’re silently sobering.
Lino was out fishing that afternoon and everything was normal. He went home and was having dinner with his wife and six-year-old son, Marco, when they started to hear thunder.
“It was strange thunder,” he told me, “one after another, and it just kept going.” The three of them went out to the nearby Fondamenta degli Incurabili and looked west toward the mainland.
“The sky was unbelievable,” he said. “It was more spectacular than the fireworks at Redentore, lightning and thunder that never stopped. Then one or two drops of rain fell and I said,’Let’s go home.’”
The next morning he was shaving when his downstairs neighbor called. “Did you hear the news on the radio?” he asked. Lino hadn’t. Nor had he even heard the passage of this wind from hell, which evidently cleaves its path with more precision than a diamond-cutter.
“There’s been a tremendous disaster at Sant’ Elena — a motoscafo has capsized and there’s all kinds of victims.”
Stunned but naturally curious, Lino took Marco and off they went to see what happened. They had barely arrived when Lino saw them pulling a drowned woman out of the water. He covered Marco’s eyes and said, “Let’s go.” But Marco still remembers it anyway.
Not much later, Lino heard that the son of his foreman at the airport, where he worked as a mechanic, had been killed. The family lived at Sant’ Elena and the young man had gone outside, for some reason, and was crushed by a falling tree.
I haven’t applied myself to learning the story behind the monument to this catastrophe. A monument there certainly ought to be; this one is extremely unimpressive to the uninformed eye, but I can imagine that it might even be a piece of wreckage, so I won’t make any aesthetic judgments.
There it squats, in its little garden. The people who lived through this catastrophe remember perfectly well without it, and the people who didn’t quite possibly don’t even notice it.
Monuments are such curious creations. We need them, but then we get used to them and then eventually forget (or never know) their reason for being. I think they may be another form of burial rite, something like cairns or menhirs. In this case, it may be that this chunk of cement carries more meaning than anyone could even express.
(Photographs of the damage may be seen at http://www.musicain.it/VENEZIA/TORNADO.HTM. Portions of the eyewitness accounts have also been drawn from this document.)