The Day The Earth Trembled...
THE DAY THE EARTH TREMBLED…
The morning of 24 August 2016 was just another incredibly beautiful day in Italy. The sun was shining and the sky was nearly cloudless. The sounds of doves outside my bedroom window and Diana working in the kitchen downstairs brought me out of a sound sleep. Normally, I would wake and say my morning prayers. But for some reason that morning I did something I didn’t normally do. I turned on the television.
I awoke to the news of an incredibly powerful earthquake that had devastated several mountain villages in Umbria. I hadn’t felt anything as I slept…no tremors. No shaking. Nothing. But of course I wouldn’t have. Our home here in the colli di Bologna is quite a ways away from Umbria…nearly 400 kilometers to the south.
The earliest reports were telling us the roads and bridges leading into the mountain towns of Amatrice and Rieti and Accumoli were badly damaged. The tiny villages of Pescara del Tronto and Arquata del Tronto were cut off from the rest of the world. The broadcasts gave only sketchy information. No one had yet been able to reach these towns to bring back any news and so far only a few grainy photos, taken on cell phones in the dark of night, were flashing across the TV. But as the day wore on, all that would change.
It was if I had been taken back in time…back to 11 September 2001. What I was seeing shook me to the core. Those same feelings of fear and disbelief that overwhelmed me as I watched the towers falling came back to haunt me.
What I watched unfolding on my TV screen was beyond belief…beyond my comprehension. It tore at my heart like nothing I’d experienced since the day those two planes struck those two towers. The destruction of the little towns was nearly total. The cost in human lives, though not yet known, would be staggering. These were medieval towns…built of stone and sand…going back to the 12th and 13th centuries. When the 6.2 magnitude tremors hit, the buildings came down like a child’s building blocks.
In the hours that followed, there was a collective disbelief that swept over all of Italy…as one horrific news video after another shocked the senses and stretched one’s compassion and sympathy to a breaking point. There was a force that affected and attracted so many…and I was one of those who could not resist. Something was pulling me there. I ached with the need to help…to offer anything I could. When I could no longer fight it, I was one of many who answered that call. I was one whose life would never be the same again…
When I arrived in Amatrice, the dust that hung in the air choked me and burned my eyes. The smell of natural gas fouled my nostrils and worried me greatly. Everyone I saw was walking in a daze…some were wrapped in blankets…others had no shoes or walked like zombies in their pajamas. They all looked as if they had seen the unspeakable.
The brave men and women of the Vigili del Fuoco were frantically running from what was left of one building, to what was left of the next, stopping only long enough to look for survivors…screaming into black openings or holes in walls where just hours earlier there were none. When silence was all that came back to them, they moved on to the next black opening…and then the next.
I remember turning a corner and that is when everything changed for me. I could not un-see what I’d just seen and for as long as I will live, it is doubtful if the image will ever leave me. I saw an old man…but only his head and one shoulder. The rest of his body was covered in rubble and stones and God only knows what else. He was pinned up tightly against what was left of the building that was once the alimentari…just up the street from the office of the Carabinieri.
There were three men standing around this old man. One was a policeman who was trying in vain to push away the huge rock that had the crushed and trapped him. Another was speaking to the old man…begging and praying for him to answer, yet knowing that he would not. And then there was the third man. The scene this man painted really affected me.
The third man had broken down into tears and was collapsed over a huge block of stone. He had recognized the old man and simply could not cope with what his eyes had just seen.
I just stood there, feeling like a voyeur, taking it all in…feeling embarrassed and self conscious to be intruding on such a private moment. And when I snapped the shutter on my camera I felt as if what I had just done was the worst kind of sin possible. I knew the old man was dead. I could see it. That was for sure. There was no light left in his eyes. He stared past me…looking out perhaps into eternity, but no longer seeing anything of this world.
A hundred questions passed through my mind. Who was this old man? Where was he going? Home? Or running away…to safety? To save someone else? Was there someone with him…perhaps buried deeper beneath the rubble and out of view? What was his name? What was his life?
I asked enough people, enough questions, over the next day or so to find the answers to each of my questions. Sometimes not knowing is better. This is the old man’s story…
His name was Giovanni. The very last thing he had done the night before what would become the last day of his life, was to take his little dog Cesare out for a short walk. That is what they did every night about that same time…after he closed up the pub and counted his money. It was just after midnight.
Giovanni and Cesare lived above his old tavern…the Taverna dei Baccau at via Nicolà Rosei 38. They’d lived there alone since 1999. Tiziana, his beautiful wife of 32 years who had helped him every single day in the business, had passed away suddenly and in her sleep five years earlier…leaving him alone with the little dog and a tavern that was nothing without her presence.
Each night Giovanni and Cesare would walk down the narrow way of via Roma. Cesare would pull to the right when they reached via San Francesco…wanting to go past the building of the Carabinieri which was across via Madonna della Porta, and then down the hill toward the Parco Nazionale. There was always something new for him to smell and explore in the small park.
Giovanni dreaded the walk down that steep hill simply because it meant he would have to climb it a bit later, and at his age and with his arthritis…well, let’s just say he was getting too old to do it many more times.
It was a few minutes after one in the morning before they were back home and Giovanni was in bed. But sleep would not come to him that night. He was too tense…too anxious. In another two days his little town would be over-run with hundreds of tourists, just like it was each year on the last weekend in August. They would come from all over Italy to taste the namesake pasta dish of his little town…spaghetti all’Amatriciana.
And in his opinion, no one had ever made it better than his dear wife. Her guanciale was always the freshest and there was something she did to the tomatoes that made her recipe so special. But since her death, he had to rely on Maria Grazia, another woman who would come to the tavern three or four times a week to cook and clean. A widow herself, she had been a close and dear friend of his late wife. Helping Giovanni gave meaning and purpose to her somewhat empty and lonely life.
Her recipe was good, but nothing like Tiziana’s. And anyone who frequented Taverna dei Baccau knew that. And so, Giovanni’s heart had not been in the celebration for years. As a matter of fact, he was dreading it this year.
An hour passed, but he could not fall asleep. Then another came and went. It was about half past three when Cesare began to whimper. He had sensed something. Then without warning, he jumped from his sleep and began to bark…crazily. He wouldn’t stop, no matter how Giovanni demanded it. Then Giovanni felt it too…
His bed began to move. To sway, gently at first. In the dark of the room, he could hear things falling from the shelves and breaking as they hit the floor. He sat straight up and switched on the light on the little round and wooden table to the left of his bed. He looked at the clock, noticing it was 3:34. The shaking was getting worse. He tried to stand up, but a violent and unseen force threw him backward onto the bed. Desperately, he rolled to the floor searching for something to hold on to...anything to hold on to.
The room was coming alive…like an angry animal. It lurched one way and then the other. The air was filled with noises he didn’t recognize…groans and creaks and something that sounded like the hiss of a snake. Metal scraped together. Wood snapped and splintered. Paintings on the wall trembled…shaking violently and then falling. The doors of the cabinets in his kitchen opened and closed…banging shut. The curtains on the windows were shaking. A light that hung from the ceiling had fallen and crashed to the floor sending shards of glass in all directions.
Then the lightbulb in the lamp on his nightstand went out. He and Cesare and the entire room were swallowed up in blackness. Panic was squeezing the breath from his lungs. The cacophony of sounds was even more frightening in the unholy darkness.
Suddenly he was thrown across the room…tossed into the corner and into the side of a dresser. He fell down to the floor just as the floor was rising up to meet him…
“Just…get…out!” he desperately thought to himself as he struggled to stand. “Find Cesare and get...out!”
Then something heavy crashed beside him, knocking him to the floor again. He lay on his back, looking straight up at the sky and all the stars in it. It made no sense to him…
“Where did my roof go?” he screamed out loud. He began frantically calling for his little dog, not having noticed Cesare was beside him already, desperately trying to dig his way under Giovanni’s body...to hide from the terror.
Images began to swirl in his head. He heard himself whimpering. Long forgotten memories were coming back to him, playing out like that proverbial movie everyone speaks of when one’s life is flashing before their eyes in their final moments.
He saw his wife’s face on their wedding day…standing so beautifully in her white veil.
He thought of his son…Francesco, and how they had argued the day he left for Rome without the slightest intention of every coming back to Amatrice…
“There is no life here for me Papà,” Francesco screamed at his father. “This is your world…up here in these mountains. But it is not mine. There is nothing here for me. Please try to understand. I love you and I love Mamma very, very much, but I can’t stay.”
That was 25 years ago.
Giovanni knew in this instant, on that night that the earth was shaking and his home crumbling, that he would never see his son again. It was profoundly sobering for him. His whimpers had turned to sobs that soon turned to screams of anguish.
The building was writhing and shaking and coming apart. Cracks shot across the walls and ceilings. He did not know how or when, but he had managed to find and pick up Cesare from the floor. Holding the little dog beneath one arm, he groped the walls in the dark with the other, trying desperately to find the stairs that would take them down to the street.
Then, for just a moment or two, as if God was intervening, the light beside his bed came back on and for those few moments he could see. He found the top of the stairs and lunged toward them just as the room turned black again. Pieces of ceiling plaster were raining down on him. He thought about screaming for help, but he had no voice.
Half-way down the stairs they gave way…disappearing beneath his feet. Cesare went flying out of his hands…out in front of him. They both tumbled down into a dark pit just as the door to via Nicolà Rosei flew open. Giovanni felt the little dog run over top of him and out of the building…out into the street where he turned around and barked frantically for his friend to follow.
Giovanni clawed his way out of the building. Once outside, he could see people staggering in all directions…like drunken ants. They were in various stages of undress. A woman he recognized from his church was running…her arms held above her head, screaming as if she had been possessed by the devil himself.
The street provided no refuge…it was heaving like a wave on the ocean. He tried to stand but it was impossible. One instant the street was beneath him and the next it was not. The buildings were beginning to crumble and fall. The noise was incredible. It drowned out the screams of the people on the street with him.
Bricks and stones and pieces of roof tiles crashed everywhere around him. Another violent surge came and threw him into the side of a car that had been parked on via Roma. He tried to stand but the ground was trembling too violently. Everything was shaking. The world had gone mad…
Fear overtook him. He felt as if he were paralyzed. He was but a few moments away from his own death but had no earthly idea what was coming.
Not more than ten meters away from him, another building collapsed. There were five or six people who were standing in front of it and they were instantly consumed in the eruption of dust and the tons of falling stone and wooden beams. In the blink of an eye they were gone.
He lay on his back in the street as the tsunami of dust washed over him…choking him. Making him gag. He watched as another building began to collapse. It started out with cracks that rapidly grew outward like the roots of a tree growing in a time-lapse. Then down it came…exploding in dust and bits of stone and shards of glass.
He looked everywhere for Cesare, but his little dog was nowhere to be found. He called out again and again in vain. He was alone now…his world had become a nightmare of falling, crumbling buildings and crushed people. He could hear their screams and moans and desperate pleas for help.
Realizing half his body was beneath the car he had been thrown against, and the other half exposed, he grabbed hold of the bumper and pulled himself out, struggling to his feet. That’s when he heard the bark…Cesare was barking. He was somewhere out there in the darkness and the haze, but Giovanni would not be able to reach him.
Just as Giovanni turned to call for him, another huge tremor shook the mountain. He felt something strike his head and his shoulder and then the world became silent for him…and so eerily peaceful. He found himself surrounded by the brightest and whitest light he’d ever known. There were no more tremors to be felt…no more screams to be heard…no more sounds at all.
As I stood staring at the men surrounding his body, nothing of the scene that I was looking at could even slightly begin to explain what Giovanni had been through. I simply snapped the photograph, said a quick prayer for the old man, and hurried on my way.
A bit further up the street my eyes caught a glimpse of a young man, a teenage boy actually, sitting alone in the middle of a pile of rubble, atop what was left of a piano…of all things. I stopped and reached out my hand to him and pulled him down to the street. Without warning, he wrapped his arms around my neck, holding on for dear life as if I were a life raft in a swirling sea.
I held on to him while tears streamed down both our faces. In theat single moment of human compassion, we had become one soul…bleeding together…one with the other. Together we stood crying for what felt like minutes.
Then he thanked me and he too then started out on his way. Within a few meters he turned back to look at me. His face had broken into a strange half smile half grimace...as if he had found some hidden cache of courage and faith within his fear and despair.
“What is it son?” I asked him. "Are you hurt?"
"No sir," he answered. Then he smiled an even bigger smile...
“I don’t wish to be rude or insensitive," I said to him, "but tell me...how is it possible that you can find anything to smile about in the midst of all this? How does any of this even begin to make sense? You have lost nearly everything you own...everything but your own life. Everyone is suffering so. How can you find anything to smile about?”
The boy looked straight at me for a few moments…then he glanced away momentarily. He turned back and took another hard look at me. He truly looked at me. In that instant I could see everything he was at that moment…standing there with an aching, crying and broken heart in one hand, his frightened and confused soul in the other. We locked eyes and with all the truth, love, and bravery any human being could ever muster, he answered me…
“How do I smile in the face of all this?" he uttered defiantly. "Because if I don’t, then I can have no more hope. If I don’t smile, all that is left is this tragedy. I don’t want my town to become a hopeless place where there is nothing but suffering.”
Before I could fully grasp the wisdom he had just spoken, he disappeared behind another pile of rubble. I heard him calling out names...he was searching for his family.
In spite of even the most unspeakable horror...in the face of unbearable loss, of violent death, of total despair…what is incredible about the human spirit is that we can find the slightest glimmer of hope. And with that hope, we can go on.