On This Day: Two thousand die in Italian mountain tsunami

Following months of heavy rain, millions of tons of trees, rocks and mud rolled off Monte Toc plunged into a reservoir at 70mph

On This Day: Two thousand die in Italian mountain tsunami

OCTOBER 9, 1963: Colossal floods killed 2,000 people and destroyed five villages in the Italian Alps 50 years ago today, after a landslide overwhelmed the Vajont Dam and caused a tsunami.

Following months of heavy rain, millions of tons of trees, rocks and mud rolled off Monte Toc plunged into a reservoir at 70mph.

The impact of the debris caused 11billion gallons of water to rise 300ft over the dam’s wall and send a giant wave crashing into the Piave River Valley below.

The tsunami wiped out 350 entire families among the victims destroyed the villages of Longarone, Rivalta, Villanova, Faè and Pirago, save for its 11th century bell tower.

The settlements of Coddisago, Erto and Casso were also wrecked by the disaster at the Vajont Dam, which was completed in 1959 and used to generate electricity.

Much of the valley, which lies 60 miles north of Venice, was turned into a 200ft-deep crater, while the dam itself escaped largely unscathed and still exists today.

British Pathé footage shows trees and debris strewn across an otherwise barren landscape, while hundreds of survivors make their way to safety across the plains.

One of the badly damaged – although not completely destroyed – villages was also filmed along with twisted train tracks that once hugged the mountainside.

The disaster sparked a massive political row amid claims of corruption and a government cover-up of repeated warnings that the built dam was unsafe.

Ministers from the ruling Christian Democrat Party tried to suggest the mountain tsunami was “a mysterious act of God's love”.

But the then powerful Italian Communist Party blamed the builders and pointed out that journalists had been sued three years earlier for warnings about landslide risks.

The 860ft-high wall was said to have been securely built by the Adriatic Energy Corporation (SADE), owned by Mussolini’s former finance minister Giuseppi Volpi.

But many experts had warned that the location of the dam and reservoir was not safe due to a particularly steep-sided canyon with banks dominated by slippery clay.

In 1960 a massive landslide had already come perilously close to pushing the water over the line.

But engineers for SADE, which sold the dam to the government in early 1963, believed they could avert disaster by keeping the water level 80ft below the crest.

It was not enough and with heavy rains totalling 90 inches in the year so far, workers struggled to keep the water level down to even that high point.

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The Italian government chose not to sue SADE after a court hearing, which was moved 400 miles from the Piave Valley, handed out lenient punishments to officials.

The Christian Democrat Party lost power and prime minister Giovanni Leoni later joined SADE as head of its legal department, which cut its compensation to victims.

Most of the survivors were moved to a newly-built village of Vajont, which is 30 miles south of the valley, while the area was rebuilt with new houses and factories.

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Later, the government encouraged industrialisation in the region by giving victims business start-up loans and tax-concessions, which could be sold on to corporations.

In the hopes of preventing a future disaster, a pumping station was installed in the dam basin to keep the lake at a constant level and a water bypass was extended.