I am rubbish at remembering dates.
I rarely remember the birthdays of even my closest family and friends. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was born on April Fool’s Day and Steve on Bastille Day, I’d forget those too.
October 26th and October 30th, 2016. Two dates that I will not forget. Ever.
Those two days have permanently altered how I live and how I interpret the world I live in. I have singularly avoided telling you about them but today I feel able to, to explain what happened and how it informs all our lives. We, who live in this region.
It had been barely eight weeks since the August period of earthquakes and we, as a community, had begun to calm down. To relax, even. We hadn’t yet finished mourning what had happened in Amatrice, but we were letting ourselves believe that maybe, just maybe, the swarm of earthquakes had drawn to a close.
It was a cold and stormy night, my cats were in front of the lovely warm stufa in the kitchen and the dog sat at my feet while I stood fiddling about at the stove .
Just after 7pm it came again.
With a force that was hard to comprehend. The pans on the cooker shot across the room. And there was that noise. That noise that we all knew so well … a noise so huge it just fills you up, engulfs you and leaves no room for anything else.
Every person’s experience of an earthquake depends on a number of things. Towns, like Sarnano, which are built on rock, and are made almost entirely of tiny, medieval (and I may say, brilliant) little cooked bricks move much more and shake much more than towns on softer foundations and towns made of stones and rocks, but don’t collapse as often. There are complex explanations for this but simply put, the spaces between rocks are irregular and go to pot when they are shaken violently, and collapse. Bricks are set in a geometric pattern and move like crazy but kind of ‘hold their own’. If you live on the ground floor the experience will feel less dramatic than if you are several flights up in building. My kitchen is three stories up, my house is made of brick and my town sits on a rocky outcrop. And I felt the earthquake.
When the 7pm one hit I ran out of the house. I remember little except that I ended up at my neighbour, Bianca’s house. The telly was on in the kitchen and we watched in shock as the news rolled on and on, naming town after town that had been struck. I stayed for about 45 minutes, had a huge glass of wine and then left, clutching a tumbler that she’d filled up with more wine.
I went home. Back into the house. As I write those silly, simple words I cannot believe that this is what I did. When I got back into the kitchen my phone was ringing off the hook. My step-son, Leo, called to check on me and I think I said I was fine and all would probably be OK. My friends in Colmurano (the ones with the virtually earthquake-proof house) phoned and said I should go and stay with them. I was busy knocking back the wine and said that, to be honest, I was fine but if anything got worse, or I suddenly got the ‘wobbles’, I’d drive over. Dinner was out of the question (not that I had any appetite) as it had gone all over the floor and the dog had woofed it. I remember looking around the kitchen and thinking what a hideous mess I would have to clear up the next day: cupboards had shot open, some things had shattered on the floor and there was paint and plaster everywhere, as the walls had moved so much.
Around these parts, we have Death Notice signs that are posted in particular places around the towns whenever anyone dies. Here in Sarnano we have two such places, and below is a photograph of one of them.
When I pass them now, I think that if this little town had gone the way of Amatrice, there wouldn’t be enough walls left standing, nor printers left in town to make the notices and put them up. What would my name look like on one? Who would choose what words to say about me? It calls me up short every time.
At about 9.15 pm (barely 2 hours later) the nightmare returned again with such a force it blew me across the kitchen floor and I was flat on my face. It was magnitude 6.0. The noise and the shaking, three stories up, was phenomenal.
People have said to me over the months, ‘God, you must have been scared witless‘ or ‘I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been’.
But here’s the thing … I was not afraid. I was not afraid or scared or any other adjective it would be easy, tempting even, to use.
It was not like that. There was no time to be afraid. In that nano-second it took to comprehend what was happening I did not think. I did not consider. My head was totally empty. Something deep in my brain took over. I became nothing more than an organism – skin, bones and muscle – that was compelled to react. React, not think or emote. I had to get my body out of the house. Immediately. My breathing was deep and fast. There was one objective, and that was to get away from the threat.
I want to be clear. I speak only for myself. I do know what fear is, but that night was not a night of fear for me. It was a night of atavistic responses, a night of working to survive. Fear came later. Came later and often, but not that night.
That night of October 26th? My imagination was no match at all for what that earthquake brought to my home. I think for me to be afraid I have to be able to engage with what it is that is frightening me, have some time to get a handle on it and then go ahead and let my imagination run away. A few weeks ago, here in this place I’m staying, there were some disturbing noises outside the french windows at about 3am. I was scared. I thought it was intruders, I imagined them creeping in and then terrorising me or worse. I went outside to see – how stupid is that – only to discover it was three wild boar looking for food. That was fear.
So, on that Wednesday night, I struggled towards the front door. The shaking of the building was violent and wouldn’t stop. As I was making my way towards the little bridge that joins the two halves of our house, I was flung onto the floor like a rag doll. I could not stay upright for more than a few steps at a time. That was when I banged up my foot and got the fracture that I periodically moan about in these blogs.
I grabbed the earthquake bag, screamed for the dog and tried to open the front door. It was difficult because the house had moved sufficiently that the wooden double doors didn’t fit properly anymore and were half stuck.
Outside was … this is difficult, actually, to write about. Outside was a terrible scene. Chimneys had come down, rubble was everywhere, thunder was booming so loud it was hard to distinguish it from the aftershocks. There was a thick fog, so thick you could barely see your own feet. My town is medieval, 13th century, and we only have one road that is for cars, all the rest, like mine are cobbled or stepped. It was all engulfed in fog. Besieged by tremors, with the torrential rain and the dreadful booming noises it was a scene from The End of The World.
I staggered up the steps of my little via and all I could see were the beams from people’s torches as they were all fleeing their homes. The town was in a temporary blackout. Many people were screaming. I was lucky as my car is parked in teeny little piazzetta right near my house. I made it inside the car and could barely breathe. I couldn’t see anything and I just could not get the key in the ignition I was shaking so much. The little streets and alleys were now full of people, running and crying.
I did manage, through the dreadful fog and rain, to drive down the one road through the old town and get out to start towards Colmurano, and safety. Others had managed to get to their cars too and we formed a sort of convoy. People were stopping, opening their car doors and letting anyone in who was waving them down. I got to just outside the town and two women – in a crowd of about fifty people – drenched from the rain, ran in front of the car and flagged me down and asked if I was going to Amandola. I was going in the opposite direction but a guy alongside my car took them. It was panic everywhere.
I drove to Colmurano. It took 45 minutes. My windscreen wipers couldn’t deal with the amount of water falling and the dog was throwing up on the back seat. The aftershocks were making the road move: it was like driving on a bouncy castle. I just kept saying to myself, again and again, ‘Stay focused, stay focused, stay focused‘.
I made it. I made it to my friends’ house. I recall just sitting in their kitchen drinking an entire bottle of wine but still feeling horribly sober. I could not stop shivering. They’d heard about it all on the news and so understood what a huge thing had just happened. It was all a horror.
The next day, Thursday, I was unable to communicate very clearly, simultaneously exhausted and desperately alert. I felt nauseous. The world was falling apart.
On the morning of Sunday October 30th I got up at about 5am. I showered, and got dressed properly. It was a beautiful, bright day. I remember that I put on jewellery, makeup and made a real effort to look good. I was going to drive into Sarnano for the usual passegiatta that happens on a Sunday morning. I was going to stop off at the best bar in the whole wide world on my way, Bar L’Aprodo, have a coffee and a quick chat with Patrizia who works there. I was making a huge effort to move past what had happened on Wednesday night, to try and pull myself together.
In Bar L’Aprodo there were masses of Vigili del Fuoco, Police, Ambulance, Red Cross and the rest … Wednesday night had been a national disaster and had caused a huge amount of damage. No-one had died thank God, because – for the most part – we had all been up and dressed.
I felt like I could cope. I would see my mates in town. I would have to check the further damage to the house, for sure, but I would manage to deal with this, I would.
At 7.41am I was in my car, passing the main square, in Sarnano, Piazza della Liberta, looking for a place to park. At that precise moment (writing this does actually make me feel nauseous) a colossal earthquake struck. Just huge. The firemen and emergency services who had been permanently in place, in the square, since the Wednesday night, were shouting and and the immediate word coming through was that it was a magnitude 7.1.
Its power was enough to move my car several feet to the other side of the road. Alfredo Cassciotti who owns one of the three bars on the square ran out, dragged me from the car and while I stood motionless in the road he moved my car. I looked up and I saw one of our church towers swaying. Moving left to right and back again.
That sight has, in many ways, done more damage to me than all the running, all the noise, all the destruction. It broke forever my belief in the notion that security/safety exists. If that huge church could move, if buildings – for god’s sake – move what can you assume is safe? There are no more ‘givens’. This is the kind of thing that I mean when I say that earthquakes mess with your head, they change you. You can’t go back to the way you viewed the world before it all happened. The world, my world, was not supposed to move. But I know that it can. I’ve seen it.
I lost the plot momentarily. I was crazed and trying to get up to my house – this, as there were plumes of dust rising and that awful roaring noise. Dust generally means that a building has collapsed (although in fact that did not happen). Alfredo had to physically restrain me – holding me close with his arms wrapped around me as I pushed him, hit him, trying to free myself to get to my house. He kept saying, ‘No, Tam, no …. you can’t … it’s too dangerous, the town is falling ….’
The town did not fall. Sarnano – unlike virtually every single other town for miles and miles in any direction – remained standing, in its entirety. We suffered a lot of damage inside our buildings (like my house where the vaulted ceiling collapsed in parts) but compared to everywhere else in this region we got away relatively unscathed.
By 8 am, Alfredo had given me a huge shot of whiskey (I think he thought it might be a sort of liquid strait-jacket) and the square was now heaving with everyone from the town, flooding to this one safe place where no building could crush us. One friend of mine had been brushing his teeth when it happened and was just wandering around saying ‘I need to brush my teeth. Where can I brush my teeth ….? It’s called shock.
The mobile phone networks were being taken down for 10 or 15 minutes at a time as the emergency services all communicated with each other around the area – and then they’d go back up again.
Then the helicopters came again – we had seen them a lot after August – the only way to speedily get round the area and see the extent of the damage and check which towns were standing and which were not.
Sunday October 30th. An apocalyptic day. I chose that adjective carefully. I stayed in the square until after midday and then drove back to Colmurano.
I was beyond shaken. How could it have happened again … after only 3 days since Wednesday night? From that day to this, I have never felt safe. Not truly safe. Nothing can be trusted. An earthquake can and will come at any time and you will never know when.
This is why – for months and months – we have all been anxious, all tired, all fearful (for today and for our tomorrows), all broken inside. All the time. Why we are either exhausted or manic. Positive about any future or crushed into believing there isn’t one for the region. It’s why I sleep fully dressed.
That Sunday’s earthquake was said to have had an ‘intensita bestiale‘. You don’t need me to translate that, do you?