Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tales From Italy: The Great Snowstorm of 2001

Vicenza is just south of the Dolomites (Italian section of the Alps) and as such, occasionally receives snow however, it rarely is subjected to major snowstorms. I think in all my years I've witnessed only two or three of what I would call major snowstorms. The worst one I can remember just happened to hit while I was on guard duty in an austere little shack on the outskirts of town. I will recount the events of that fateful night for you now...

It was the winter of 2000/2001. I was a lowly buck sergeant working for SETAF in Vicenza, Italy. In those days, enlisted soldiers were responsible for providing security for various buildings and locations in the area. On this day, my name just happened to be on the list and so I gathered my cold weather gear, drew my weapon and dutifully reported to the garrison staff duty at 0600 to receive my assignment for the day; sitting guard at the transportation motor pool (TMP) in nearby Torri di Quartesolo. The TMP was basically a big lot where they kept civilian vehicles used by the base, mostly big white passenger vans and the like. As terrorist targets go it was probably way down near the bottom of the list, somewhere around a horse stable or a medium sized vegetable garden. The way the guard duty worked was that each location would have an NCO (usually an E5) and a lower enlisted (E1-E4) who would sit in a shack by the front gate and if, by chance, someone would pull up, you checked their ID and then opened the gate for them. You had your trusty M-16 rifle but you were not issued any ammo so on the off chance that you were attacked by someone who meant you bodily harm - or maybe just wanted to steal a van - you were apparently supposed to point your weapon at them and yell "Stop! Or I'll say stop again!" Ironically, there was a law in Italy that anytime weapons were being transported, you needed an escort from the Italian Carabinieri (sort of Italy's elite military/police force) and so, all the soldiers on guard duty piled into a huge passenger van (yes, the kind I would defending with my life that day) and we were delivered out to our respective assigned duty locations. 

The lower enlisted soldier assigned to me that day was named Private Votion, a short, scrawny Mexican soldier who weighed barely more than his M-16. Guard duty back in those days was sort of a blow off duty and you pretty much sat in the shack and read a book or something. You checked a few IDs during the day but for the most part it was boring. Many soldiers would actually bring a laptop and play games most of the time. There was electricity in the shack with an old space heater for warmth and luckily the shack was tiny so the little space heater was able to keep it just warm enough. For lunch we had an MRE (meal, ready to eat). You were supposed to sit at your post from 0800 until they closed at 1700 (5pm) after which time the escorted van would come retrieve and bring you back to the main base. As expected, it was a boring, uneventful day. 

Uneventful, that is, until it started snowing.

It started snowing shortly after noon that day. And then it started snowing harder. And harder. Somewhere around 1400 (2pm), the manager of the TMP lot stopped by the shack to tell us that the bases were all closing due to the weather and he was locking up so we could leave if we wanted to. Of course this was not possible as we had weapons and could not leave without an armed escort. I got on the radio and called back to the Sergeant of the Guard (SOG) to report this and asked if it was possible to get picked up early. The SOG responded "Negative TMP, stay at your post and await further instructions." And so we sat and busied ourselves with whatever we had available, fully expecting that we'd be picked up in a couple hours at the most.

But it was not to be.  

An hour passed. By now, accompanying the snow was a frigid wind that was whipping so hard that every so often it would violently rip open the door to our little shack. The diminutive space heater was doing everything it could to keep our small haven warm but was steadily losing the fight as the storm got more and more violent. 5pm approached and still no van. I called the SOG to inquire about our relief and was told "Stay calm and in place, we are trying to get chow out to you now". 

Ok, something is amiss here, I thought to myself. And indeed there was something amiss. Italy is full of crazy drivers. They drive like maniacs. Traffic signs to Italians are mere suggestions. And when it snows and the roads are icy and slippery...they do not amend their driving habits one bit. And so, the streets in and around Vicenza were awash with accidents. The Carabinieri, along with local police had more accidents to attend to than they had officers which meant that there were no Carabinieri available to escort the van in retrieving us. We were stuck there until God knows when. 

Two more hours passed. Around 7pm the van pulled up and for a moment we thought we were saved. Once again, it was not to be. With no Carabinieri escort in sight it seemed to the SOG that the next best thing they could do would be to deliver chow to us so we wouldn't go hungry at least. Of course, due to the condition of the roads along with the plethora of accidents and traffic, it had taken them over two hours to get to us which meant that chow consisted of ice cold "chicken a la king" and green beans. The driver told us to sit tight and they would get someone out to pick us up as soon as they could. 

Another hour passed. It was now 8pm. Votion was complaining about, well, pretty much everything. I told him to just be thankful that we still had electricity for his laptop and the space heater and less than ten seconds after the words came out of my mouth, the power went out. I got on the radio and told the SOG that we had no power and no heat and he responded "Roger, just keep the door closed and bundle up, there are still no Carbs available". I'm no mathematician but in my head I started going over various algebraic equation trying to figure out exactly how long it would take for the remaining heat we had to dissipate. After a few minutes Votion announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I reminded him that we have no heat and that opening the door would let the cold in but he would not be deterred. Desperately clinging to what little heat we had left, I told him to pee in the corner but the shack was only about 5 feet by 5 feet and apparent stage fright would not allow his little peen-ween to function properly. We reached a compromise where he quickly opened and shut the door as fast as he could but the cold that got in made things worse. I silently prayed for the electricity to come back on but to no avail. We had cold weather gear but no extreme cold weather gear. We could not remain in this shack all night with no electricity and no heat, we would surely suffer frostbite or hypothermia. 

As the NCOIC, I began to go over our options which were admittedly few. Perhaps we could grab our gear and try to hike back to the base on foot? No, it was not possible in that weather, we would never make it. Would we be stuck there for days? Would we even survive the night with no heat? Would I end up having to eat Votion to stay alive?

Thankfully, the answer to all these questions was a resounding NO. Sometime around 11pm, the sweet sound of vehicles pulling up outside shook me out of my shivering horror. It took nearly an hour to get back to the base due to the horrendous road conditions. I asked the driver to crank up the heat and he said "Sorry man, the heater is broken". Sigh. We got back to the base, turned in our weapons and I finally arrived at home sometime after 1am. I fell asleep straight away. 

I had survived the great snowstorm of 2001. 


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