Feb 12, 2012

Flash floods in Genova, again.

Enough time has passed and the first days hype around the facts of the 4th November 2011 has largely settled. Now it's time for me to write something on this blog.

When not directly involved in rescue operations, fire brigades are like washing machines that spin and spin, day and night. What is being washed is not the equipment, but the spirit.

Story telling is the main tool to manage the effects of stressful situations, sitting in front of a cup of coffee is often enough to trigger the mechanism. These stories have to fulfill their main purpose, discharge the storyteller oppression, but even a good story needs an audience, otherwise it's like crying in the desert. Will you keep reading?

You ask me: “At what time?”. Time? I don't know. That day I lost the sense of time. I remember the daylight, the gray and dull light of a rainy day. Then the dark dropped on me and I was suddenly dazzled by the sharp light of our headlights.

They told me later that it is around 11 am when a call from the local council to our operational centre points us to a critical situation on that small creek, one of the fifty creeks that cross Genova, before flowing into the sea. “You can't hope to manage operations without direct knowledge of what's going on” teaches any fire commander. So after a short briefing, I decide to go and see.

The feeding basin is so small that the said creek is usually nothing more than a tiny stream of clear water that rejoices the suburb, and often disappears under the rocks during the dry season.

But at 12 am, after intense raining, that tiny stream is suddenly morphing into a monster. While performing the assessment mission, it happens that a colleague and I are exactly there, at that precise moment the wild water comes out of the riverbed, jumps over the street, forms a big wave and runs over everything and everybody passing there by chance.

Luckily my colleague understands before me what is going to happen. After seeing the coming wave, he steers abruptly the red jeep, dodges a pair of floating mopeds and climbs over a steep road at left to a safe higher position. We jump out of the jeep and we turn downwards, towards what we just escaped. There we stay a couple of seconds incapable of believing what is happening in front of our eyes.

The most vivid memories I can recall are the noises of the cars swept away, crushing one against the other, and the cries of the passing people (video)

Our position has been reached minutes before by another red jeep: two divers of our Brigade as astonished as we are. That day they were on duty at the airport, but have been diverted here after the bad news started coming. Other colleagues are a hundred meters upstream of the flood, but we will rejoin them only some hours later.

We call the operational centre by phone describing the indescribable: “please, believe me!”. Wearing the orange wetsuites, the helmets of the same colour, the self inflatable PFDs we enter the rough waters. We slip along the walls of the buildings facing the street, where the stream is less sweeping and you can protect yourself against the incoming cars dragged by the fast current.

In a few minutes the current gets seemingly less dangerous and we slowly start reaching the people barricaded in the shops along the street, trapped in the vehicles, perched on railings and moving them to nearby safe places. The people out of the windows of upper stairs call us, unlock the front gates and welcome the refugees. (video)

When by mistake my hands touch the metallic cable trays on the walls, the dispersed electric current bites my fingers as a poisonous fish. While the strong smell of methane bubbling from broken pipes adds worry in this overwhelming situation.

While climbing over damaged cars, both my colleague and I get hurt by the glass debris. A shaken old lady from above donates some sticking plasters, I dirty her living room with red, warm stains. We do not put too much attention to it for the whole day. Luckily for me it's just scratches, way worse for my colleague when the same evening at the hospital his little finger tendon is discovered cut in two.

A particularly clear image still present in my eyes is that of a young school girl still wearing a pink striped apron and her heavy backpack, clinging with her father on top of a column of red bricks.

In around twenty minutes, as fast as it came out, the water goes back to the underground riverbed, leaving behind its toll of death and destruction.
We run uphill trying to keep the people out of lower areas, an impossible task. Who knows? All that may happen again in a minute.

Then we move back downhill, where other colleagues have already started working. Wearing a wet suite we are good candidates to dive into a dark basement in search of several missing women and children.

I clearly remember the expression of a desperate man trying to convince me that they could still be alive in that muddy basement or perhaps he is just trying to foster his far hope. The water almost touches the ceiling down there. We can barely swim in that thick, dark liquid. The many floating objects sink as you hope for support while passing around in the dark rooms. The small water proof torch barely shows what is already clear: no survivors there, for sure.

Twice we plunge, then we move away in search of other survivors, leaving the colleagues slowly pumping the liquid away.

The rest of the day follows: the calls to the operational centre begging for scaling up the forces, the sudden arrival of the night, the invasion of alien TV cameras, the hidden internal fight to pretend mental equilibrium while speaking into the lens.

This is the visible upper part of the iceberg I swallowed. The rest still lies underwater.