Our ship was docked at Priolo on the eastern coast of Sicily. I was on the bridge looking at the volcano, Mt Etna, through binoculars as it was sending out puffs of smoke. Joško, the second mate, came up to the bridge to make a cup of tea. He had been in these parts before and told me it was nothing to worry about. As he had a couple of hours free we decided to catch the ferry to the town of Augusta ten minutes away.
A strange sight greeted us. People were camped out on every available inch of open space! There had been an earthquake in the next town the previous evening, and tremors had been felt in Augusta. An old church, the Chiesa Madre, had suffered mild damage. People had temporarily vacated their homes as they feared another quake.
We had lunch and sat in the restaurant talking over the last bit of wine. It was December of 1990. Those days Yugoslavia – from where Joško, a Croat, hailed – was on the verge of breaking up into several independent countries. There was a civil war involving the Croats and the Serbs. Joško often said, “There’ll be no Yugoslavia when I go home!” with a touch of gallows humour, but was really worried about his family back home, especially the girl he had married just a few months before.
Suddenly we saw everybody running for the exit. People were crying, shouting and hugging each other. We asked people –¿Qué pasa?– in Spanish, hoping they’d understand, as Joško didn’t know Italian either. People were too numb to bother to answer us. We wandered out and asked a couple more people. Someone answered “Tumulta!” Wow! There had been an earthquake? Joško said, “That wine must’ve been strong. I never felt it either.”
We ran to the ferry boat and made for the ship. It seemed the safest place to be. We casually asked the boatman if he had felt the tremor. He nodded with a troubled expression and told us in English that his daughter was out there somewhere, and he was worried about her safety. We didn’t know what to say. Was this a way of life for these people?
And here we were, excitedly looking around like there was a film shooting going on, and the whole thing was a movie set. We had addressed the boatman in much the same insensitive tone that we find offensive when used by interviewers on television. Although – between us – we claimed the novelty of the experience as an excuse, we felt quite ashamed of ourselves and silently stared out at the shore as we sailed away from Augusta.
On reaching the ship we rushed up the gangway to the Cargo Control Room. The third mate, Boris, was on duty. We told him about the earthquake. He said it had been just a mild aftershock. Obviously then, the locals had been on tenterhooks and had overreacted. Joško and I were glad to know that we hadn’t been too drunk to notice an earthquake!