The Seven Countries Study: Italy
Montegiorgio, Second Round, 1966
Anche Uno Disastro! (Another disaster!)
In the spring of 1966, the Seven Countries Study was in the midst of the second round survey in the villages of Montegiorgio and Porto San Giorgio on the central Adriatic coast of Italy. There, we met Pentti Rautaharju and his engineer colleague, Herman Wolf, as well as members of the Yugoslavian and Italian Seven Countries field teams. It was a big year for our recording of electrocardiograms by new methods, on magnetic tape, at rest and in exercise.
I was met at Rome’s Fumicino Airport by an Italian colleague in a Fiat 500 like that involved in the earlier adventure near Crevalcore. We took off toward the Apennines, our car loaded with survey equipment. A rosy Alpenglow gleamed off the snow-covered peaks as we climbed eastward over the spine of Italy. Just as night fell, starless and moonless, we arrived at the divide, the Adriatic far below. My colleague paused a moment at the pass
Then down the mountain we went, freewheeling, in top gear. On the straightaways, at top speed, the clutch went in “per conserve di benzina,” and as we wildly approached the turns, the brakes were slammed hard. We teetered and screeched around each curve, turn after hairpin turn, and then again hurtled down the straightaways. There was no idea of driving in gear, no idea about shifting down for powered turns.
Black became the night. Suddenly, on an inside curve, the little Fiat’s over-heated brakes locked. We skidded wildly and hurtled off the highway into the blackness!
At the turn just above, there was a 1,000-foot drop into a ravine. At the turn just below, a 500-foot plunge into a dark stream. But at our turn, we left the road, sailed over a greensward, tumbled over and over, and came to rest gently against a soft hillock.
Then came the now-familiar cry, “Uno disastro, Enrico! Accidente! Misericordia!”
My door was jammed, but I was able to extract myself through the cleanly broken window. Then, as an obstetrician might do with forceps over the head of a plump baby, I inserted first left hand, then right, helping deliver inch by inch the ample flesh of my colleague through the tiny Fiat window. Delivered, he knelt in the green field, shivering.
Abruptly, out of the silence and darkness, loomed a band of peasants in silhouette. After commiserations with the good “professore dottore,” and assurances that we were intact, they together picked up the little Fiat and carried it the hundred meters back to the road. There, setting it down like a clothes basket, they stood by patiently as we surveyed the damage. Unbelievably, only a dozen test tubes were broken among some $30,000 worth of equipment. And we were fine.
Our helpers then pulled out fenders gouging the tires, and we proceeded down the mountain, limping, scraping, veering crab-like at a few miles an hour until we reached the next village. Companions hailed, our equipment transferred, the remainder of the trip to our hotel in Porto San Giorgio was uneventful.
Grateful to be alive, I silently swore that I would never, ever again ride as passenger in a private automobile in Italy.