Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Prior to World War II, Sunday was a day of rest in Romania just as it is today. An opportunity to attend church, spend time with family and friends, enjoy a meal, followed by leisure time at home. This was true whether someone lived in a city, town or village. It was what tens of thousands of Romanians were doing in Moldova and Wallachia on November 10, 1940. Little did they suspect that their humble abodes, middle class residences or ornate mansions would suddenly be transformed into death traps, rendered lethal by collapsing columns, caved in roofs and shattered windows.  Their day of rest, relaxation and respite was suddenly interrupted in the worst way possible. At precisely 3:39 in the afternoon one of the worst earthquakes in European history began to rumble upward and outward from the Vrancea Mountains on the southeastern edge of the Carpathians.

The power and ferocity of this earthquake was shocking, but it could not have been that much of a surprise since the ground had been trembling and shaking for months. There had been ample warning beforehand that something was quite literally afoot. On the evening of October 22nd, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale had struck the region. That one had been preceded by several months’ worth of quakes measuring anywhere from 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. The same minor cataclysms had started up again during the final week of October and first week in November. Romanians had no choice but to hope they might get lucky and sidestep what appears in retrospect to have been inevitable. On an ill-fated autumn afternoon their luck had run out.

Rescue operations for survivors in Carlton Bloc

Rescue operations for survivors in Carlton Bloc (Credit: Iosif Berman – National Geogrpahic Romania)

Spectacular Malevolence-  From Modern To Medieval
The shock waves struck the Moldavian, Muntenian and Wallachian countryside with a force that had not been seen since the 1802 earthquake had laid much of the same area to waste. The effects of the 1940 Vrancea Earthquake were felt across a massive swath of Europe, stretching from the Greek Peninsula all the way up into the gloomy forests of northwestern Russia. The epicenter was centered on the town of Panciu, where the homes were reduced to matchsticks. Less than 30 kilometers away, the city of Focsani was transformed into an almost complete ruin. The 1940 earthquake has also been called the Bucharest Earthquake due to the damage it inflicted upon the Romanian capital, but this can be misleading. Rural areas suffered just as much or more devastation. Provincial cities met with unprecedented disaster. Modernity turned to the medieval in a few minutes. All it took to travel back in time several hundred years was a 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

Fate was as unkind to provincial areas as it was to Bucharest. Take for instance, the city of Chisinau (currently the capital of Moldova), with a population seven times less than Bucharest and a much smaller urban footprint. It ended up with almost the same number of buildings destroyed (172 vs. 185) as its bigger brother. In an asymmetrical stroke of spectacular malevolence, the earthquake occurred at a time when Chisinau and Bessarabia (present day Moldova) were undergoing a human disaster the likes of which they had never experienced. The Stalinist Soviet Union had been given carte blanche by Nazi Germany to forcibly annex the territory from Romania. This led to hundreds of thousands being arrested and either sent to the gulag or worse. Another 300,000 refugees fled to Romania, a massive influx that the floundering government was ill suited to manage. Now the Romanian government was also dealing with a natural disaster on an epic scale.

Points Of Collpase– Natural Demolition
In some areas, Bucharest sustained catastrophic damage. Nowhere was this more true than at the Carlton Bloc. In the 1802 Vrancea Earthquake, the city’s tallest building at that time, Coltea Tower, had been reduced to rubble. In 1940, the building which stood above all else in modern Bucharest, the Carlton Block, collapsed. No one expected such a calamity, least of all its builders who believed that this fourteen story, reinforced concrete structure could withstand the mightiest of blows. Tragically, they turned out to be wrong. The Block underwent a deadly natural demolition that ended up taking the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting inhabitants. A photo taken in the quake’s aftermath shows throngs of rescuers taking part in the operation. Their attempts were largely in vain. The concrete which had upheld the Block since its construction, can be seen strewn about in haphazard piles, entombing many of those who had been at home when the earthquake struck.

Carlton Block was the scene of the earthquakes most infamous fatalities and as such they would not soon be forgotten. The collapse of Carlton Block was largely responsible for Bucharest becoming inextricably linked with the destructive force of the 1940 earthquake.  It also obscured the damages incurred by other areas of the city and country. Estimates of property damage were easier to assess than the number of deaths. Information was heavily censored in Romania at the time, thus exact figures are difficult to calculate. The best estimates show over 500 deaths and 1,500 casualties, though both totals may be much higher. Reports from provincial cities and rural villages were incomplete at best. Bessarabia was under Soviet control, which meant the flow of information was even more restricted than in Romania. It is hard to imagine that only 72 lives were lost in Chisinau when 2,765 buildings were damaged. The human, architectural and economic tolls were all immense.

Ruin From Within & Without – Into The Cauldron
Neither Bessarabia nor Romania could afford such a calamitous event. The former was suffering under the iron grip of Stalinism, thousands had already disappeared in the night, now hundreds disappeared amid the rubble. As for Romania, it was on a near wartime footing. In 1940, it suffered the forcible annexation of both Bukovina and Bessarabia at the hands of the Soviet Union. That was followed by the loss of northern Transylvania to Hungary. The 1940 Vrancea Earthquake only added to these woes. The nation was on the verge of ruin from within and without. Soon the nation would be swept up into the cauldron of World War II. Romania was a land that had been shaken to its core.

Click here for: From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

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