A Harrowing Evening

With any adventure, there is always a bit of danger or risk – otherwise it wouldn’t really be an adventure. On our way to Rome as part of our new adventure we got a little more on the danger side than we expected.

You might have seen or heard about the flooding in Genoa or maybe saw images of it – at least it is all over the news here. Rightly so. We were caught in a flash flood there.

On our way to Rome from France we had a stop in Genoa. Our train was leaving at midnight and it was a sleeper train (something we were all looking forward to). When we arrived, it was pouring rain. It was the kind of tropical rain we were used to from Costa Rica actually. We dashed to a restaurant close to the train station and ate. Then, with a few hours to kill, in a lull in the rain, we walked a long block to a nice hotel and had some refreshments in the lobby.

The rain picked up again and we laughed at how hard it was coming down about 10:45pm as we were planning to head back to the train station. Aidan pointed out where the water was moving along the gutters and splashing up. We bit the bullet and decided that it was unlikely to let up and so we’d have to get wet to get back to the station.

The hotel was about 200 yards diagonally across from the train station. There was a complex set of streets intersecting in between, creating a huge, almost continuous intersection. The closest street was about 20 yards wide followed by an equally wide grassy median, and then a street going the opposite direction, also about 20 yards wide.

On the way across, Aidan was with me and Nev was with Deb a few yards behind. We got split up. Here’s where we’ll give you two views of what happened next.

Deb’s Story

By the time we reached the median, Aidan and Andy were ahead of Nev and me by about 10-15 yards. Nev and I were in the median when Andy and Aidan started crossing the second street. Just as they hit almost midway and we were nearing the edge of the median heading into the second street, a huge river of water, at least 2 feet deep, came rushing down the street. It really did happen in a flash.

Nev and I watched in horror as Aidan was swept off of his feet, getting carried with the water. He managed to recover for an instant and then lost his footing again as the water seemed to get deeper. Andy went lunging after him to grab him by the back pack. With a good bit of work, Andy managed to get them to the other side and behind a bus stop “wall” as a “barricade” from some of the water. The median was slightly elevated from the street level so Nev and I were not hit as hard by the rushing water.

There was much yelling back and forth but not any hearing of coherent words over the din of the rushing water and the pelting rain. I knew that Nev and I could not make it across safely. So the first thing to accept was that we were separated for the foreseeable future from Andy and Aidan.

We couldn’t make it back to the place we started because the road behind us was the same. I also knew that we couldn’t stay out in the open where we were in case the water rose. The first thing was to get behind a large chunk of concrete that held some type of flag pole or something or other. Then we climbed up on top of it and hung onto the pole for further safety.

Once we were up and safe I could take a better look around. Down the street roughly 100 yards or so was a pedestrian overpass and there were some stairs that led up to it from the grassy median. It appeared that the water was roughly the same depth along the median to the stairway. After much waving of arms and strange gesticulating I felt that I had communicated my intentions to Andy. Nev and I hopped down from our concrete block and ran as fast as we could through the water to the stairway.

We arrived at the stairway and ran up without incident but the price was no longer being able to see Andy and Aidan at all due to the lack of street lights (power outage) and the sheets of rain. Unfortunately, the covered overpass had chained and locked doors so while we were safe from the flood waters, we were still standing in the cold rain. Fortunately, I had asked everyone to pack their headlamps. Nev took one out of a pack and used it to signal/mark our location for Andy. It was a relief to see Andy’s light shortly after.

While I felt I did the right thing by making sure that Nev and I were safe, it was very frustrating to not be able to do anything of significance to help Andy and Aidan. I wanted to see if there were stairs that lead to their side of the road (it would make sense) but I couldn’t see any from where we were. I saw some people in orange jumpsuit things that looked like they were some type rescue people. I knew we were all pretty invisible in the dark and in dark, drenched clothing. I started whistling very loudly to get their attention. After a couple of minutes of whistling, they located us. I yelled and pointed and tried to explain where Andy and Aidan were and that they needed help.

Eventually, some of these folks broke the locks on the doors to get into the pedestrian walkway and then come over to our door, broke that and we were able to get out of the rain. I then convinced them to go over to the other end and see if they could reach Andy and Aidan. The headlamp communication is how they knew where to go. By this time the rains had let up a bit and the water was not quite as high – but certainly not at a level yet for going into the street. Andy and Aidan were able to make it to the other end of the pedestrian overpass and meet us up there.

After much hugging, we made back to the hotel via the pedestrian overpass and then walked through rushing water – though this time only about a foot deep. This was somewhere around 00:20-00:30. We sat on the leather sofa, put down our rain soaked backpacks (which of course held all of our clothes, technology, etc.) and the hotel people handed us blankets, towels, and bottles of water to drink. The hotel was full. We had missed our train and, of course, still had no way to get to the station even if our train had not already come and gone.

Andy bravely went back out to check on a little pensione we had noticed earlier in the evening. I was too cold and too focused on trying to keep the kids from shivering so much they cracked their teeth to even bother being worried about him out on his own. In the end, the pensione had a room for us which was dry. It had a hot shower to wash off the flood gunk, clean sheets, and warm blankets. There was no electricity, but we got by with the headlamps. We managed to piece together a few bits of clothing that were mostly dry to wear. We laid out some clothes to (hopefully) dry for the morning and tried to dry out our technology, then we showered and fell into bed.

Andy’s Story

Heading out, my biggest concern initially was getting all of our feet wet and having to dry out our shoes. It was the only pair for some of us. I had checked the street already and the water was flowing a few inches deep and so it was clear we’d be soaked.

The rain was really coming down as we started to cross the first of the two streets. We were all laugh-groaning as we hit the water. It would make for a good story, right?

There were still a few cars driving around the intersection in the very muddy water, but fewer than earlier.

Aidan and I crossed the first part of street running and crossed the median as Deb and Nev hit the median. It was hard to sprint quickly since we were all wearing our heavy backpacks. The water flowing down the next part of the street was a little deeper and we started running across.

As we made it about two-thirds of the way across, the water started flowing a lot faster and in a few seconds it was about two feet deep. Several things happened at once.

I realized this was no longer water flowing down the street. It was a flash flood (even though I had never actually seen one). Aidan fell and was getting quickly getting pulled down the street. Then the water rose a bit more.

As Aidan fell, I dove for him and grabbed for the loop at the top of his pack and fortunately caught it. I as I grabbed him, the water rose about another six inches and it was nearly up to my waist. I started to trip on one of a number of pieces of debris under the water. Aidan’s feet weren’t on the ground any longer; he was in the “river” of muddy water and I was dragging him through it by his loop.

We had started crossing at the corner. Once I had his loop, we were about 10 yards away from the corner. There was a bus stop shelter and I moved to get behind it. The water was rising and I remember thinking that we had to get to high ground. We couldn’t get trapped inside the shelter but it would block the water flow for us. We made it to a bench just behind the shelter. It was up on the curb. Aidan sat down and the water was flowing just under the seat.

I looked back and the street was a raging river of muddy water and debris. I saw Deb and Nev and tried to motion them to go back. Very fortunately, they hadn’t attempted to cross the street.

Aidan was really scared. I was in one of those creepy calm states where you can think very clearly and it does indeed seem like things are moving more slowly (time dilation). The thing I remember most at that point was deliberately speaking very slowly and calmly to Aidan, telling him that he was doing a super good job and that I was very proud of him – all the while looking for a way to get out of there.

Getting to the bench gave us a few minutes to collect our thoughts. Aidan was very worried about our electronics. I expected that they were all toast and told him it was all just “stuff.” Stuff can be replaced. We were very lucky. Despite being wet and cold, it could have been a lot worse.

Aidan was cold so I gave him my cashmere sweater to keep warm. I had a t-shirt, but by that point the cold was the least of my worries. And for some reason, I, who am perpetually cold, was actually somewhat warm. It’s strange what you remember.

I checked on Deb and Nev. They first jumped on top of a large concrete block. They couldn’t hear me and I expected that my phone in my pocket was gone since I had been submerged.

The water seemed to be rising much less quickly, but it was still rising and the level was rising above the bench where Aidan was sitting with his feet up. I knew we couldn’t stay there. Beyond the street on our side was what looked like a park. It was all underwater and the water was flowing very fast still. I had no idea how deep it was and couldn’t chance it with Aidan.

Fortunately, we were a few feet from a tree. Aidan was shivering and couldn’t move his legs well, so (still not having let go of his backpack loop), I told him we were moving to the tree and pulled him to the end of the bench. The water was still mid-thigh. I pulled us to the base of the tree and told Aidan we were going to climb it.

The branches started about 6 feet up. I got his pack off and held it over my shoulder as I pushed him up. I have no idea how I was able to do that with the weight of two packs but the little dude grabbed the branches and locked himself in.

It was a fairly small tree and there was no way I could get up there easily with the packs. The water wasn’t horribly strong and so I stayed at the base. I clipped Aidan’s pack to the branches. Then I remembered that I had my headlamp in my pack and so I pulled it off carefully and retrieved it. I also remembered that I had a light rain jacket in my back and gave that to Aidan as well.

I flashed over to Deb and Nev and they had a headlamp too. It looked like they were heading down the median toward an overpass, which was great. I flashed to them and to the street “SOS” a few times (not really expecting that anyone could get to us yet). There were a lot of branches hiding us though so I started ripping them all away from the street side. Poor tree. I think it will look odd for awhile.

I kept talking to Aidan the whole time. There was an ambulance stuck nearby and an older man sitting in his car pretty safely, but asking for help. I told Aidan I wasn’t leaving him. That’s when my phone alarm went off.

The alarm was telling me we had missed our midnight train J I pulled it out and thought for a second I could contact Deb. I texted but the phone said there was no SIM card and so I put it into Aidan’s bag.

At this point, the water was holding steady and not rising much. The rain was letting up and we were safe where we were – although we were soaked to the bone and cold (I was feeling it by then). The whole time I was looking for where to go next but the best option if the water rose was still our tree.

Shortly after midnight, I saw two people with flashlights and neon emergency gear walking toward us across the park field. It turned out that the water was really only a few inches deep there. I got Aidan out of the tree and we walked with them over to the overpass that crossed the street back to the hotel.

We met Deb and Nev halfway across that overpass in a very emotional reunion.

We then headed back to the hotel lobby. They were really nice and brought us towels and blankets, letting us get warm. Unfortunately, though, they had no rooms available (and no power). I tried to have them call a nearby hotel at the other end of the train station, but no one was picking up. I just wanted to get us someplace dry so I went out looking for a place to stay.

I walked to the other side of the train station where I had spotted a few small hotels earlier. The rain was falling lightly and as I trudged through the water and mud I saw a number of stalled and flooded cars. It looked like rescue crews were out in force now. The far side of the train station looked like it actually had gotten hit worse than the side we were on.

I found a small hotel that also had no power but it did have rooms and quickly returned for Deb and the young adults. We made it to our hotel room still soaked but very happy that we had a warm, dry place to stay for the night. We’d sort everything out the next day.

On the way to the hotel, I got a chance to reflect a bit on what happened. It was scarier than I’d like to admit, especially since Aidan was with me. I’ve been in scarier situations in high school, but it’s very different when you are with your kids. It was also really stressful that we were not all together. I knew Deb and Nev would be just fine – at least rationally. It was painful though not to be able to communicate in any way and I was sure that they were terribly worried.

That night I slept little – or at least, it wasn’t restful sleep. I think I dreamt of every negative scenario that could have happened, from Aidan not having a backpack on that I could grab and having him swept away to getting completely separated from Deb and Nev and not finding each other afterward. On the lighter side, I also dreamt of the zombie apocalypse and seeing all the zombies washed down the street. We all had a good laugh at that one. They are all still pretty vivid to me even now.

The next day we managed to each get a set of clothes that had dried overnight. Most everything else was wet – or wet and muddy in the case of Aidan and me. We made it to the train and on to our Rome flat without incident. We dumped all of our clothes into a wet soggy pile and cranked up the first of many, many loads of laundry.

On the technology front, I was astounded how little we actually lost, especially given the swim Aidan and I had. I did indeed lose my phone, along with my mouse. Aidan’s laptop was dead. Nev’s phone also died.

Very happily, my PC made it through, tucked into my Tortuga backpack laptop pocket. My Kindle made it as well, also reasonably protected by its neoprene sleeve. Aidan saved his phone and iPod because they happened to be in a Ziploc bag. Deb’s Mac and phone were fine, as was Nev’s laptop. They really only had hammering rain and so only the stuff on top was lost.

Now, a few days later, in some ways it feels like this event happened ages ago. When it’s rained since then, even lightly, I do think about it. And times like this are good at putting all the other minor challenges in perspective.

One of my favorite quotes has always been Nietzsche: “That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.” I think it has. I was extraordinarily proud of how Nev and Aidan handled the whole situation. We can argue and get on each others’ nerves, but we are still a family and I think this is something that has brought us a bit closer. I’d like to think our whole adventure this last year has as well. I can certainly say that the rest of our adventure was far less dramatic. Pura vida

Some Kudos

I have to give a few shout outs after this event. A big thanks goes to the Starhotels President Hotel in Genoa for generously taking care of us after we made it back. Once again, I have big kudos for my Tortuga backpack. I’m not sure how the laptop sleeve kept my PC alive when it was mostly submerged, but I am certainly happy it did! And thanks to the designer at Lowe Alpine (Aidan’s backpack) who thought to put an easily grabbable and strong loop on top of the bag. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if I couldn’t have grabbed it.

6 thoughts on “A Harrowing Evening

  1. Wow. Just wow. Headlamps are such a good survival gadget, although I suppose you guys could have used your smartphones (if they were still working) in much the same way. Very glad you all are ok. What a story.

  2. Pingback: Rome | Intentionally Off Path

  3. Pingback: 10 Most Memorable Things – Europe | Intentionally Off Path

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