On Sunday 23 November 1980 I caught the evening train home from Naples to Tricarico. I sat in the last compartment of the last coach, with a family from Potenza and several other travellers.
As we drew near to Pompei the train began to sway and shudder sideways. It slowed, but continued swaying and trembling, seeming to hang poised above the rails. A few seconds later it came crashing down again and again in a series of bone-jarring oscillations. Without speaking, we clung to the luggage racks. From the darkness outside came the sound of tens of thousands of voices screaming, shouting and crying. The noise emanated from all sides: Pompei, Castellammare, Torre del Greco and Torre Annunziata. It was the equivalent in sound of the aurora of light hanging over a city at night when it is hidden from the nearby countryside. Meanwhile, the train drifted to a stop at Pompei station, which was in total darkness.
Outside, there was a furious commotion. Car headlights swept the sky, horns blared, tyres squealed; there were more shouts and screams. Groups of people came running across the railway tracks, seeking refuge away from the shadow of tall buildings. We sat in the carriage, bewildered and alarmed. After twenty minutes, when the noise had begun to die away, I clambered down from the train. On the platform of Pompei station, a dense crowd of people stood in the moonlight around the signal cabin, where the station-master was vainly trying to establish contact with the rest of the railway system. He tried number after number on the telephone and pulled lever after lever on the signal frame, but the equipment was dead or unresponsive. The crowd murmured apprehensively. Suddenly, the station lights came on; but after a few seconds they flickered and went out again. As the light ebbed, the crowd gave in to panic. People rushed to the nearest open spaces, or threw themselves to the ground. A man slipped and rolled under the train. I began to start running, but checked myself, realizing that there was nowhere to run to, and running was pointless.
Eventually, the station-master succeeded in connecting an emergency supply of electricity, and the station buildings were bathed in a weak, yellow light. We were still isolated from the rest of the railway system, and outside the streets were pitch dark, as the last vestiges of the commotion subsided. A new crowd had formed around the telephone in the station bar. At the instrument a man was dialling a number over and over again; the jerky movement of his hand and the sweat on his brow testified to his anxiety. The crowd was tightly packed around him, as everyone wanted to be the next in line to use the telephone. In another corner of the bar a television set beamed an evening variety show, blithe but unheeded.
After an hour and a half I joined a large group of passengers who had begun to cluster around one of the train doors. A man standing on the steps of the carriage was holding a portable radio and listening intently to some broadcast message. The crowd was silent and tense. I listened, too. On Radio Potenza an announcer was giving details of the earthquake and his voice was barely restrained against the emotion that threatened to overwhelm it. The hill villages of Basilicata were stricken and isolated: nobody knew how much they were suffering. A hysterical Carabiniere from Balvano had managed to contact his headquarters at Potenza to say that his village lay in ruins; there were many dead, injured survivors, clouds of dust, heaps of rubble, infernal darkness and, worst of all, crying of the victims trapped beneath the rubble. The line had gone dead, and subsequent attempts to re-establish contact with Balvano were fruitless. It was rumoured that Bella, Muro and Pescopagano had been all but destroyed, but no one could tell in the darkness that enveloped those places. In Naples there had been some spectacular building collapses: new buildings as well as old ones, but details were sketchy. The streets of Potenza were filled with rubble. Here, the first victims were claimed when, at the start of the tremors, an enormous piece of cornice fell from the top of the town hall, crushing four passers-by underneath. There were victims amid the debris, but nobody could tell how many. This news was greeted with shrill cries of alarm by some of the many Potentini among the crowd. We were all of us scared and felt helpless, as we stood marooned among the crowd. We were a in the small enclave of light surrounded by the wide and fearful night.
I made my way down the street into the centre of Pompei. The darkness was almost complete and, until my eyes became accustomed to it, I had to feel my way along the walls of the buildings that lined the street. The roadway was deserted and as soon as I could see well enough in the dark I moved away from the pavement, being acutely fearful that masonry would fall on me (although I later found that many people had died in the streets of towns as façades collapsed, my fear proved to have no reasonable basis, as this did not happen at Pompei). In the main square, residents had lit bonfires and were sitting patiently around them wrapped in blankets. Flames cast a bright orange light on the dense, watery clouds of fog that blew overhead. The mist parted momentarily to reveal a black bronze angel, trumpet in hand and wings outspread, perched on the marble front of the Sanctuary of the Madonna.
For an hour I stood in line to use the telephone. When my turn came I could get no response from my calls. Numbers in Basilicata or Naples gave no ringing tone, merely the whisper of endless wires, the sigh of long-distance connections that could not be made. I dialled again and again, eventually making contact with a friend in Tricarico long enough to say, "I am at Pompei." In desperation, I called England and spoke almost immediately to my parents, who panicked.
I returned to the station to find the train just as I had left it. The family from Potenza, with whom I had travelled from Naples, were pre-occupied for the safety of their tiny baby, which occupied a carry-cot on the seat beside them. But the heating of the train was still on. At 2 a.m. a train to Sicily passed through without stopping. Then at 3.15 our train set out in the direction of Salerno, but I left it, preferring instead to return to Naples. Its flickering tail lamp disappeared into the night as if it would never be seen again (in fact, contact with the train from Potenza was lost for a period of twelve hours as it stood marooned on the line through the ravines of upper Basilicata). I went back into the centre of Pompei. There seemed to be no trains for Naples and I began to wonder whether I could walk the 29 kilometres back to the city, but the mist was thick and the road narrow. There were no signs pointing the way to Naples. So I returned once again to the station and made myself as comfortable as possible on a hard seat in the first class waiting room. The only other occupants were six Japanese tourists, who passed the time by listening to music and dancing with each other, in a frenzy of hysterical gaiety. I was too tired to care, but too uncomfortable to sleep. The dawn was grey and silent. A local train from Naples brought newspapers, in which there were 3 brief and incomplete reports of massive destruction. At this point nobody knew the extent of the tragedy.
At half past eight a train from Calabria arrived and I was finally able to make my way back to the city. The journey took several times longer than normal and was agonizingly slow. Whistle shrieking, our train slid along the line as it traverses a jumble of narrow streets. The streets were full of people: family groups, crowds, gangs of children, meetings of workers. Rubble and rubbish lay in piles everywhere, and at the intersections braziers full of wood were burning and people wrapped in blankets were sitting around them staring into the flames. More than ever, the city looked like a rotting carcass over which insects were swarming and congregating. We slid interminably on, past street after street in which the same scene was repeated.
At Campi Flegrei I left the train and made my way to an apartment in Piazzale Tecchio. All doors were locked and the building was deserted. The side of the next building had collapsed, forming a dusty mound of green tiles in the roadway beneath. I made my way across the square, which was filled with people and garbage.
Life in Naples was being lived out of doors. Shelters had been improvised out of plastic sheeting and sticks, and people sat on kitchen chairs outside them, eating bread and listening to the radio broadcast tragedy. Families were preparing to live in their cars, which stood in rows and were full of bedding and provisions. several of the orange city buses and trams were drawn up at the side of the road and people were eating a rudimentary breakfast in them.
I knocked at the door of a dilapidated old building and was admitted. High in this grimy apartment block a crippled old lady had been led to safety as the earthquake struck. The lift cage groaned, the stairs outside heaved and the counterweights of the lift banged backwards and forwards as the old lady was escorted down from the building. Filled with relief I greeted those whom I knew and hastily sorted out some warm clothes and a loaf of bread, before going out into the open air. Everyone talked of aftershocks and no one had any desire to go back and settle in the rooms above ground level. Neither had we any desire to walk up the road and look at the horrors to be seen in the rest of the city. Instead, we settled down on a park bench, where we remained, apathetic, until nightfall.
We spent the second night after the earthquake around an open fire. The night was cool and damp, but tranquil. Shortly after 8 a.m. the next morning an aftershock occurred which, I believe, caused much damage in the mountain communities of Basilicata and Irpinia. Tremors continued to occur during the day, but to us most of them were indistinguishable from the rumble and vibration of city traffic. The second day passed much like the first, except that we discovered in ourselves an increasing tendency towards aggravation, to argue at the slightest provocation. We bought newspapers and read with absorption. The news worsened progressively with each new edition, giving us a sense of mental vertigo and engendering a feeling of leaden horror in the pits of our stomachs.
As the full story emerged in press reports and on the radio and television, the tension in Naples increased. Under the weak glare of the street lights that evening men were fighting, hands at each other's throats and murder in their eyes. Weary and disgusted, 4 we took our bedding indoors and moved to rooms on the third floor. Few other people in the Rione Flegreo followed our example and the camp fires continued to burn outside. We looked closely at the walls of the apartment, discussing any cracks that we found. None of us was sure of the chances of our surviving a full-scale aftershock or another main shock (the value of experience and learning is that I would now be much more confident in such a situation), but we were too tired to care. Our bones were sore from a night spent on the damp ground outside, and our nerves ached and tingled. We slept fully clothed, with our shoes on and a torch close at hand.
Next morning we made our way to the Central Station. On the metro they were discussing a young woman who had died of a heart attack in a train that stopped in the tunnel under Montesanto during the earthquake. At the railway station we found chaos and total lack of information. The train service to Basilicata and eastern Campania had ceased altogether. By strenuously questioning every official or worker who would listen to us we eventually discovered that buses were leaving for Potenza. We purchased tickets and climbed aboard one. Several passengers were arguing with the driver. The problem was a fairly trivial one–where to stop on the way to Eboli–but the argument was vociferous. More and more people joined in, their faces reddened with shock and anger. Clearly, the tension provoked by events had become overbearing (soon after we left a bus was set on fire after having thirteen Molotov cocktails ignited underneath it: such is the value of public services in a full-scale emergency, that the humble city bus can be used as transport, shelter or refuge, or become an instrument of protest).
When the argument was resolved, as it eventually had to be, we set out for Potenza. The motorway was deserted. The much talked-about columns of relief supply trucks were nowhere to be seen: eventually we came upon one, near Potenza, a straggle of small vehicles travelling at a snail's pace along the open road–while, of course, people were dying unrescued under the rubble of the villages. At Amalfi we found a huge boulder weighing several tons resting on the elevated carriageway that clings to the side of the mountain. At Battipaglia the alleyways were blocked by heaps of rubble and many streets had makeshift barricades across their entrances as a result of the danger caused by falling masonry. At Eboli we passed a modern apartment block that had been reduced to a huge mound of dusty rubble. Behind it the wreckage of a second block had left several furnished rooms gaping open like a doll's house without facade. One was a black-painted bathroom with full-length mirrors and a deep blue bath, a curiously brutal fantasy under the current circumstances.
At Balvano a quiet-spoken man asked to be set down from the bus. On being questioned, he told us that Balvano was his home, his wife and children were there and he did not know whether they were still living and his house was still standing. He wished us a courteous good afternoon and walked off resolutely towards Balvano. Most of the passengers on the bus were close to tears with sympathy as we watched him go.
We crossed the Sele Valley in the late afternoon as the fiery sun was illuminating with deep orange rays the turbulent sea of mist beneath the great sloping viaduct on which the motorway is suspended. Picerno stood clearly visible on a spur above the fogladen ravine. We could discern a gaping fissure in the cupola of the church, as well as heaps of rubble flanking the ruins of the nearby castle. Helicopters hovered overhead, 5 as we drew up in the station forecourt beneath Potenza City. On the platform groups of peasants sat with bundles of their belongings–evidently salvaged from the wreckage of their homes–and waited for transport to Naples, from where they would go on to stay with family in the North or abroad. A few were injured and several were freely crying or raising their thin, harsh voices in some antique lament. We caught a local train to Grassano.
We were apprehensive as the small bus carried us up the winding road to Tricarico, but the town looked much the same. It bore, however, an air of tension that distinguished the moment from a normal Wednesday evening: there was practically no one about, as they had all fled into the countryside. People were extremely nervous and betrayed signs of shock, for at the slightest provocation their faces flushed and they became bitterly irritable. We ate a hurried meal, arguing all the time over trivial matters. The others departed to spend the night nine to a room in a villa outside of town, with no heating or electricity, and no sanitation; but I was too tired to care, and slept fully clothed in a fifth floor room. It was a tranquil night.
Beneath its calm surface Tricarico was in serious trouble. The Saracen tower had collapsed. The Ducal Palace, Convent, Cathedral and Seminary were badly fissured. San Francesco, the 13th-century church above the square, was on the point of collapse, with massive cracks running high up the walls where they joined. Soon, builders would come and remove the town clock and adjacent bell tower from the roof of San Francesco. They would erect an elaborate crochet of scaffolding around the building, and fill it with a dense cage of poles and connecting braces. Many smaller buildings were seriously damaged and eighty displaced people were seeking sanctuary in the Middle School, a low-rise building on the outskirts of town.
I went to my little house in Via Monte. Many roofs had collapsed or cracked open in this locality (including that above my own home) and evacuations were in progress. Their faces set, people were strapping kitchen chairs to the saddles of donkeys or loading cabinets onto the backs of three-wheeled motor-carts. The sight made one's heart ache. My landlord met me and explained that I would have to move out of my lodgings to make room for his own family; you could see the sky through the ceiling of their bedroom and there was a possibility that the entire roof would fall in. He apologized profusely, but I could not let him go on and gently told him not to worry about me, for his own plight made mine seem insignificant. Neighbours told me that two old people had died of shock as a result of the earthquake and had already been buried. The cold, grey November weather cast a shadow over the suffering in Via Monte, and at the end of the street the grey stones of the gateway into Santa Chiara had slipped from a rounded arch into a jagged profile, a symbolic portrait in stone of the suffering caused by the earthquake.
I hauled my belongings away to the fifth floor room and made it my temporary home. Outside it began to snow and an icy wind blew the flakes into whorls before they could settle. Conditions must have been grim in the mountains behind Potenza, and the television news brought us the full seriousness of the problem with an immediacy that was both unexpected and alarming. An enterprising film crew found its way to a village that had been reduced to a heap of powdery rubble, across which survivors were wandering dazed and hysterical, alone after a week without relief and shelter. The 6 nation was deeply shocked and so were we, for these were images and situations that under no circumstances could be simulated.
At 2.52 a.m., six days after the earthquake, I awoke to find the floor heaving and objects dancing on the table. I fell out of bed and stumbled to the light switch, but it was already over, there was only a gentle backwards and forwards motion. It was the first of many aftershocks that I was to experience while sleeping in that room, fifteen metres above ground level, where any small tremor became a pronounced sway. With difficulty I calmed myself and went back to bed. The returning silence was broken by people starting up their cars and leaving to spend the night in the countryside. Resignedly, I drifted into sleep again.
by David Alexander