An Incredible Story of Courage in the Face Of Death – A Personal Account of Tragedy Caused by the Vernazza Flood
Pino Giannoni of the gelateria “Porto Dody Gelateria Artiginale” in Vernazza disappeared in the flood that occurred in Vernazza on October 25, 2011.
This is the personal account of what happened as told by his son Valentino Giannoni, who was with him on that day.
It was the morning of the October 25th, 2011. I did not sleep well the night before.
My family and I wake up hastily, make breakfast and rush our eight year-old daughter India up to school. We are running late. On the way I observe the fast moving clouds of the “scirocco” winds painting the sky against the backdrop of the tower at Mari’s. It was a surreal sight. Upon my return home the winds pick up and it starts to rain. Quickly, my wife Carly and I try to close the shutters, the wind making it almost impossible to do so, as we see that the water is entering under the windowpanes. People outside our window are struggling to walk down the road, the strong rain coming down by the bucket full. When the storm calms a bit I call Carly over to the window to show her the rising water level of the canal outside our building, telling her of a time when I was a boy and saw the canal waters rise to its’ maximum capacity.
After a while the rain subsides and we go out on the balcony to check on the ducks and geese that live in the canal below and see them struggling, trying to defend themselves from the force of the water. Right in front of our eyes, as if we are meant to see it, one of the geese is swallowed up in the current and to our horror and dismay the other dives in trying to save his mate.
Carly and I, along with our 3 year old son Zen, decide to go downstairs and follow the canal downstream hoping to find the geese again. Across the canal we see one that has found safety under the garage that houses the town’s ambulances. No sight of the other.
Saddened, we walk to our family gelateria to visit my father and tell him the story of the geese and discuss the weather. It’s raining lightly now so Carly and I decide to go to higher ground and see if we can find the other goose in the canal outlet at the bottom of town. Not a trace. We return to the gelateria where we all eat foccacia and Zen has Grandpa make him a strawberry ice cream cone.
While visiting with my father, the rain starts pouring down again, the electricity goes on and off and the wind is picking up to what seems like hurricane speeds. We begin to worry and I help my father mop the floor as water comes inside the gelateria. The water level quickly rises so much so that I grab a bucket to scoop up the water to no avail. We decide to put away the gelato so that we can close. I take off my shoes, which are wet, and my father puts one of the solid shutter doors inside the door frame to block the water which is now brown and quickly gushing into the gelateria. I run over to give him a hand, leaving the gelato in the case. We decide that we need to move the heavy potted plants out front to keep the water flow clear and away from the door. All of a sudden Dodi, our friend and business partner, arrives and moves the planters away from the sides of the door. It is a futile attempt considering that in a matter of minutes the water level increases from a few centimetres to a half meter torrent which now leaves us with no way to exit. Zen, who had fallen asleep in Carly’s arms after his gelato, awakens 30 minutes later only to see my father, Dodi and I fighting to keep the doors shut, the water level half-way up the door. We are all desperate and scared as the water continues to rise. Carly and Zen are terrorized and screaming, Carly repeatedly asks if we are going to die.
The ice cream refrigerator display case begins to float. It seems like a scene in a film. The water is now black, full of dirt, heavy and unforgiving. I am holding the door against the fury of the water, arm in arm with my father and praying for a miracle in order to escape. My wife and son are crying with fear and it seems impossible. Outside the sound of the rocks and debris is deafening. We see small trucks going by, large trash bins, car bumpers, tables, patio umbrellas and the roar grows and grows to a thundering level.
We tell Carly to go to take shelter in the back laboratory where she can’t see the destruction and to find a high place to climb to. HUGE MISTAKE. After a few minutes we hear a desperate scream from Carly as one of the freezes has been lifted up by the water and is now blocking the door to the laboratory. Total panic. I yell to Dodi to go help them while I fight with my father to keep the door closed. To my horror I see that Dodi is unable to free the doorway and yell to him to come back to hold the door with my father. I hurl myself into the water and swim with all my might to free my wife and child. I try in vain to push the freezer away from the dark laboratory door. I tell Carly to move out of the way and suddenly I am able to lift the freezer and throw it against the wall. I worry about the electric current in the water. I tell Carly to pass me Zen and then Carly is able to exit.
There is an overpowering odor of gas in the air and Carly is yelling that everything could explode. I remember that there is a full tank of gas in the shop. I shout to Dodi to close the valve of the tank floating near him. He grabs hold of it and the moment becomes dreamlike with Dodi floating, my father chest deep in water and Carly and Zen screaming. We hear an acute, indescribable whistling sound, which we later learn to be the towns’ main gas tank that had been ripped off the hillside high above Vernazza and down into the town while continually spewing gas. The refrigerators at the entrance of the store start to move and then capsize. I hear my father scream “Zen! Zen!” as he struggles to keep hold of the door at its weakest point. I see him for the last time at that door, with Dodi, in a final attempt to block the fury of the flood.
I turn to grab hold of Carly and Zen and put them on top of a big refrigerator that is floating. I hear Carly’s anguished yell, “My God Vale! Your father is gone! The water took him away!!!” I turn and can’t see him anymore. I see Dodi dive under and after a few seconds resurface covered in mud and dirt, gasping. I yell to him “Where is my father?!” Dodi, in shock, now finds strength in my son (as he later told me) to keep hold of the door. Carly continues to repeat that my father is gone, terrorized. I tell her that we don’t have time to think about it. I can’t even believe the words coming out of my mouth, but I know that I need to focus. My father just tried to save our lives and I couldn’t give way to desperation and panic. I make sure Carly and Zen are safe and lay on top of the white refrigerator. Dodi secures the doors as best he can with wood and the red Coca Cola refrigerator. The water level continues to rise and thoughts of drowning invade my head. I think, “my poor father… do we have to die like this…I beg you God please stop the water, please give us a miracle!” I move slightly and Carly slides off the refrigerator with Zen. I jump in and try to swim but sink instead, my feet not even touching the floor. The water level is almost to the ceiling now. I try to climb back on top of the refrigerator and Carly passes Zen to me but I don’t know why. I take him and raise him up high with my right foot on one refrigerator and my elbow on the second refrigerator. The refrigerator starts to move and I am losing hold. I see Dodi leaning against a wall I do not recognize. The dividing wall between the gelateria and neighboring cantina is crumbling and reveals a staircase goes up to the height of our ceiling. Dodi tells Carly to move to his side as he has made a step for her to keep her above water. I see a shelf above them that is sticking out of the ceiling and I ask Dodi if we can get out through the door would we be able to enter the stairwell of the building next to us and climb to higher ground. Dodi says it is not possible. Then miraculously, I see the water level subsiding. Within 10-15 minutes we are able to touch ground. The water level outside the store, is still high, but the force considerably less. Carly and I scream to Dodi to run for the door to our left. Dodi opens the door, looks out and tells me to pass Zen to him, and all together in a line we swim to the neighboring stairwell. I turn quickly to look down the street and the scene in front of me is terrible. I search in vain for my father and yell “Dad, where are you?” I hear a yell and turn back again towards the stairwell and see Gianluca helping Carly, Zen and Dodi climb to safety. For the first time in an hour and a half I feel safe. When I reach the others I hug Dodi and we share a moment of disbelief and for a moment begin to cry. We are taken further up the stairwell, assisted by Mauro who helps us get out to the higher back alleyway.
I no longer feel my feet but I run toward the piazza with the news that my father has been sucked away by the torrent, hoping that somehow someone had saved him. No one has seen him but the townspeople hurriedly begin to search for him. Zen is dried off by neighbors and Carly runs to the school to get India…it seems like it’s 7pm or 8 pm, but it’s only is 3:45pm. We are advised that all citizens and tourists are gathering at the City Hall because the situation is getting worse. We quickly go and are taken in by the warmth of the townspeople of Vernazza.. We receive blankets and dry clothing and Carly rests with Zen.
We are alive and we thank you Dad! Thank you for holding the door to give me the time to save my family and get them to safety atop the refrigerator. Thank you for calming the water giving us the opportunity to escape. I know it was you, your spirit, blocking the water and breaking the fury of the flood. I am thinking this as I realize that we have survived the impossible.
The phones do not work, the electricity comes and goes, and the first news of the tragedy begins to spread. Susie takes us in and makes us feel safe that night. We don’t sleep well and I keep thinking how strange it is that after my father was taken by the force of the flood waters, those very waters calmed.
When I hear the whistle of the train in the thick of the night it brings me hope and that hope brings me back to the morning before when the goose was sucked down by the water. I think of my father and I imagine the worst. I think of his sacrifice and find solace in hearing Zen’s breath while he sleeps. Thank you Dad. Thank you Dodi. Thank you all for having been able to maintain the calm in the moment of tragedy. Thank you Vernazza for your warmth and affection. I look into the emptiness of the dark and the images from that afternoon run through my head. I cry and I am angry for what happened to my father; for how he suffered and for how he was ripped from his family, from his grandchildren that loved him so much. Carly and I hold eachothers’ hands, the rain falls and we are alive. Thank you father.
Pino, sarai sempre nei nostri cuori