An unprecedented, but almost invisible tragedy led to one of the most extraordinary gestures of international solidarity. This is a true story, moving, pure, dramatic. It’s also a distant story, in both geography and in memory. Yet, it seems that time hasn’t worn away the meaning of a sincere sense of altruism that in more than 50 years, who knows why, was never properly recognized.
Florence knows a thing or two about receiving a bit of help. After the 1966 flood, it’s estimated that more than 80 countries around the world lent a hand to the city and its inhabitants. It was an enviable, unprecedented awareness.
What the force of the Arno destroyed, the force of the Arno rebuilt.
Even before the houses, the streets and the works of art, after the devastating rush of the muddy river, the first thing to be rebuilt were human relationships.
Before being hit by the water and debris, Florence was never considered a “city of the world” with such conviction. Yet, in the 1960s, which many remember for the economic boom and the first man on the moon, the birth of Pop Art and Spiderman, the first James Bond film and famous figures like Mandela, Malcom X and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Florence became everyone’s city. And it was able to welcome that universal embrace that’s still preserved today.
But not every story was told. Unfortunately, there are secondary stories that still sit on the margins, closed in a drawer or buried in archives. Small and big stories alike. The Bosco degli Svizzeri, growing in the Mugello all these years, is without a doubt one of these. It’s certainly the happiest. Others, however, walled up their happiness in the heart. They’ve been abandoned, tied to the singular spontaneous, altruistic act born out an empathy for suffering.
This is how it was for Aberfan, a small community in Wales with just 3,500 inhabitants. A few weeks before the flood, on October 21, 1966 to be exact, this small mining town suffered an enormous tragedy. It was raining for days, intensely and incessantly. Just after 9am, a mountain of coal debris pounded down into the town. Sadly, the first building to be hit was the school. A total of 144 people died, 116 of whom were children. The bell rang that day just as on any other and they were seated at their desks. The lesson had just begun.
“I climbed up on the debris, desperate,” one of teachers later recalled. “I didn’t immediately realize the catastrophic extent of the landslide. Then I looked up and I saw fragments of the school, which was completely destroyed, sticking out from the sea of debris.”
Along with the children, many staff members also died, people like Nansi Williams, who blocked the kids with her body in an attempt to stem the avalanche of coal. The five children she was able to save survived the disaster, but not her. She was found by emergency responders a few metres away.
We can’t look for happiness in moments like these, because it was swept away together with those young lives. But the human soul is nevertheless unpredictable. It’s impossible to classify or interpret. So we can’t explain what was happening in the minds and hearts of the parents of those innocent victims when, hearing about the news of the flood in Florence, they collectively decided to part with their most precious memories in order to help the Tuscan children they read about in the newspapers.
Clothing, games (or should we say toys) and other useful objects that belonged to the children of that ill-fated school building were collected and loaded onto a minibus that drove nearly 2,000 kilometres to reach Florence.
It’s a sad story, as we said, sad but emblematic and which reflects that widespread feeling of solidarity that unfortunately, at least that time, wasn’t met with adequate gratitude. Among the many later commemorations, the community of Aberfan was never dedicated the space necessary for receiving that “thanks” that was surely said years ago by whoever helped that kind man unload the games from the minibus that perhaps, prior to the tragedy, was used as a school bus or taxi.
But it hardly matters. What’s more important is knowing that Antonina, the daughter of Piero Bargellini, the mayor of Florence during the flood, talks about this story when she speaks in schools around Tuscany. And it’s important to know that today, more than 50 years later, there are children who, listening to her words, are still able to be moved.