Wednesday, December 14th, 2016
There has been a long gap since Chapter 3. This is because I was without internet, here in my little ‘bed-sit’, for several days. The walls in this villa are about 50 cm thick, there are a lot of them and my reception just gave up. Thankfully, Michele, Sarnano’s answer to all problems technological has woven his magic and here I am again.. . . .
I went to a meeting in town a couple of evenings ago. Two psychologists were talking primarily to school teachers here about the effects (PTSD, put bluntly) on the children in the area: how to recognise problems, how to deal with them and what parents can do to make it easier for the younger ones. This is a subject that I’m interested in and am putting together a big, separate ‘piece’ about what the little people here – the next generation – are experiencing. It is something I fear few people, outside of the region, are giving much thought to.
It was also a general look at why we, the adults, feel what we do now – why we have tachycardia, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, have short fuses and are exhausted from having to be so alert all the time.
These are the mountains that moved – and there is Sarnano in the foreground
Even a small, brief tremor re-ignites the memory of August 24th – as if it were yesterday – and then it is compounded by the further horrors of October 26th and October 30th. The latter were truly devastating although nobody died.
So, what did happen at 3.36am on August 24th?
And the longer answer? Well, that’s the story of these essays I keep writing on this blog.
What happened to all of us in the middle of night unleashed a chain of events that endures to this day and will impact on every day here for years to come. Earthquakes are not events … they are processes.
Since that night there have been 33,500 (not a typo) quakes. These are ones that are above a certain magnitude, a magnitude you are apt to feel, depending where you live and on what floor of your house you happen to be in. If you include the ‘tiddlers’ the figure is up around 100,000. This what they call a ‘swarm’ – the likes of which have not been seen since 1703.
Obviously I do not know what it is to die. But I do know what it is to believe you will.
At 3.36 am Steve and I were asleep. I woke instantly to a great banging and a monstrous shaking of our bedroom (three floors up which makes it rather worse than being on ground level). It was as if a giant toddler in a furious temper had grabbed my home in its fat little hand and shaken it in a rage. It seemed relentless. It lasted for about a minute and ten seconds. Count those seconds out. It is an eternity to lie in bed and realise you will, most definitely, die. The bed moved, things were falling off shelves and out of cupboards. The noise was deafening. A million bricks all moving against each other, walls moving, straining to pull away and the earth roaring as energy equivalent to the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, erupted beneath us.
A quick explanation – the Richter Scale measures earthquakes using a base-10 logarithmic scale. This means that, for instance, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 releases 32 times as much energy as an earthquake of magnitude 5.0 (and 7.0 would release 32 times more energy than the 6.0) So, small looking differences (like 5.4 compared to 5.7) in the recorded scale conceals the vast difference in the effect of that quake.
Neither of us were able to speak. I knew instantly what was happening but Steve took a couple of seconds longer to grasp it. We clung on to each other. I buried my head in his chest and can remember clearly thinking ‘Is it going to hurt when I die?’
I cannot say that I was afraid, terrified, scared witless or any of those adjectives. What I understood from the noise and that dreadful, dreadful shaking was somehow apart from fear. It surpassed it. It was instead a sad feeling of wishing I wasn’t going to die like this. It never occurred to either of us to even try and get up.
And then it stopped. Just stopped. Total silence. We ran, naked, to the front door. Steve had grabbed tracksuit bottoms and he threw me a towel and his huge leather jacket and screaming for the dog we went outside. How strange that we did not run away. We, like everyone else in our little street, were outside, barely able to breathe, clinging on to each other and collapsing on the steps that run the length of our little sloping via. My immediate next door neighbour was hysterical – absolutely robbed of her senses.
I have never slept naked since that night, nor can I imagine ever doing so again. Now I sleep in things that have pockets so I always have the car key and the phone actually on me. One of many small – and not so small – things that have changed in how I and many others now live.
We then made our way down into the main square, Piazza della Liberta, barely 200 meters away. By the time we got there, there were hundreds of people. Many in pyjamas and slippers. Milling. Ashen faced. The owners of the three bars on the square had come straight in and opened up – TVs were turned on and coffee drunk. The rolling news stunned us all. People had died. In houses and streets that looked just like ours. The views from their windows had been the same as ours. They were a version of us and they were dead.
At 4.30 am there was another big quake and we fled the bars for the middle of the piazza. Any buildings that collapsed would not hurt us if we stayed there. There were dozens of further tremors and another big one at 5.50 am.
At daybreak we braved returning to our houses. Ours was a mess. It looked as if a poltergeist had whipped through the place messing everything up in a fit of pique. We did not have any major damage but it didn’t look good.
The next day we drove back home to Sarnano, feeling leaden and disoriented. The town was eerie, desolate, sad. So quiet, no jostling, no voices – nothing really. There were broken faces everywhere. We barely spoke. There just wasn’t anything sensible or meaningful to say. Just this enormous senses of loss, loss and more loss. No-one could not think of Amatrice and how lucky we were to have stayed basically in one piece. I understood survivor-guilt quite clearly at that point.
We collected a few bits of clothing and the A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh books that had been passed down to me from my grandmother. Funny how few things there are that are worth a damn.
That was the day the ambulances, the fire brigade, the Red Cross and all sorts of other people and equipment from all sorts of emergency services rolled into town. They’ve been here ever since. For some reason, the helicopter that stayed in the sky made me nervous. It felt like we were under occupation, but by Allies, all waiting and wondering if and when the enemy would strike again.
Turns out we didn’t have to wait that long, really. Just long enough to relax and take our eye off the ball. And then ‘it’ returned with a vengeance that was, truly, biblical.