Climbers, cavers, high-rise workers help clean debris from rooftops after Zagreb earthquake

Posted on: April 28, 2020


Jagor Koprek and two unidentified volunteers remove a damaged chimney above Vlaska Street in the center of Zagreb, Croatia. Koprek is one of the organizers of the volunteer movement to help clean up dangerous debris from city rooftops after the March 22 earthquake that rocked the country's capital. [Photo] Ivica SturlanJagor Koprek, Matija Tomorad and Marko Matosevic remove a damaged chimney above Vlaska Street in the center of Zagreb, Croatia. Koprek is one of the organizers of the volunteer movement to help clean up dangerous debris from city rooftops after the March 22 earthquake that rocked the country's capital. [Photo] Ivica Sturlan

On March 22, a Sunday morning, Croatia's capital city of Zagreb was in the first week of lockdown to address the COVID-19 pandemic when citizens awoke to 5.5-magnitude earthquake that was soon followed by an almost similarly strong aftershock, according to the Croatian Seismological Service at the University of Zagreb. The quake toppled chimneys and left dangerous debris on the rooftops of so many buildings that official emergency crews quickly became overwhelmed and unable to cover all the problems and threats.

Seeing the desperate need and an opportunity to lend their rope-access skills, approximately one hundred Croatian climbers, cavers and high-rise workers have spent more than three weeks clearing rooftops.

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Some consequences of the earthquake were immediately visible—the top of a cathedral tower fell off, and a maternity ward in one of the main city hospitals had to be evacuated because there were so many cracks in the walls. A few hours later, it became apparent that the large, old city center, with some buildings dating back to the 19th century, suffered some serious damage. The Civil Protection Authority and firefighters struggled to deal with hundreds of cases of dangerous loose material hanging from the roofs, often right above the main city streets. According to information from the city's emergency department, in the first few days after the earthquake, there were more than 26,000 citizen's reports of damaged buildings, with 1,900 of them declared by engineers as non-habitable.

The rooftop rubble of a chimney that was toppled during the earthquake. [Photo] Vanja SiljakThe rooftop rubble of a chimney that was toppled during the earthquake. [Photo] Vanja Siljak

Josip Zelic and Luka Spiljak. [Photo] Suzana AntolinJosip Zelic and Luka Spiljak. [Photo] Suzana Antolin

Among the first people to offer some help was a group of climbers professionally engaged as high-rise workers. When they saw the condition of the roofs, they spread the word among their climber friends.

"The few of us then decided to ask the whole city climbing community for help," says Igor Kranjec from the alpine section of a mountaineering club named Matica.

With a little over 800,000 citizens, Zagreb has three alpinist sections at different mountaineering societies and a few sport-climbing clubs. There is also a strong speleological (spelunking or caving) tradition in the city. In this tight outdoor community, where everybody knows each other, news spreads quite easily. The online signup sheet for volunteers to clear the roofs filled up practically overnight with a hundred names.

"Almost every climber, caver or mountaineer with some free time to spare wanted to put his or her rope skills to good use," says Kranjec. An event manager by profession, he quickly started organizing voluntary action in coordination with city Civil Protection and firefighters.

Volunteers gathered early the next morning and organized in small teams, each with at least one experienced high-rise worker as a team leader. They investigated some of the most urgent locations and started systematically examining the roofs in the densely populated city center. The sheer amount of damage, often hidden from the pedestrian view, was shocking.

"The parts of the city built after the [1960s] are quite capable to withstand strong earthquakes. But this is not the case for many parts of the old center with houses built in the period from the end of the 19th century until the Second World War," explains architect Rene Lisac, member of the alpine section Zeljeznicar. The weakest points here were chimneys, in many cases completely knocked down, or, more often, left semi-detached. The teams focused mostly on securing these time bombs that were threatening to fall on the central city streets at any time.

"It was sort of like doing first ascents every time we went to another roof," says Lisac. "You need good teamwork, there is a problem solving, you need to find good anchors in the tricky terrain, and in the end you feel you did something good."

Teams relied mostly on their own equipment. When the situation on a roof was deemed too complicated, they would leave it to the firefighters.

Marko Raduka. [Photo] Vanja SiljakMarko Raduka. [Photo] Vanja Siljak

Ana Kontrec and Marko Ljubesic. [Photo] Marko DuksiAna Kontrec and Marko Ljubesic. [Photo] Marko Duksi

The volunteers, many of whom were women, spent the next three weeks working from morning until dark, most of them heading to the roofs before or after their regular work. Every day there were at least 40 people in action. In the second week, the public learned about the "alpinists on the roofs" and the volunteer's Facebook group named "Alpinists, speleologist and high-rise workers helping Zagreb" became overwhelmed with citizen's requests, pleading for help.

Volunteers "solved" more than 300 roofs in the first 20 days, which means they had to deal with at least twice that many chimneys, says geologist Ivona Banicek from the alpine section of Matica. As one of the main coordinators, after working on the roofs, she would then spend hours organizing teams for the next day.

There was also an additional challenge: with many older people living in the most damaged part of the center, volunteers were quite worried—being mostly young and possibly asymptomatic carriers of the virus, they did not want to accidentally spread it to people who were more vulnerable. They were also afraid about getting infected themselves.

"But the loose material on the roofs certainly looked to us like a much bigger threat than coronavirus," says Lisac.

Entering more and more houses, volunteers were very careful to use masks and disinfectants and to limit contact with tenants. Nevertheless, the amount of gratitude was overwhelming. People couldn't believe that somebody came in to help with so much enthusiasm, says Banicek. Defying the fear of infection, citizens brought them food and beverages, and asked to get photographs with them. One professional jazz musician even did a little concert in their honor while they were working on his roof.

Well-known Croatian jazz musician Ante Gelo (lower right) poses with volunteers who cleared his roof from the loose material. Gelo played for them while they were working on the roof and showed them a collection of his fine guitars. [Photo] Courtesy of Ante GeloWell-known Croatian jazz musician Ante Gelo (lower right) poses with volunteers who cleared loose material from his roof. Gelo played for them while they were working on the roof and showed them a collection of his fine guitars. [Photo] Courtesy of Ante Gelo

"You helped us in times of great stress"; "You are angels"; "We are proud of you"; the touching messages of gratitude still keep coming to the Facebook group. Local media also picked up the story and the folks with ropes, harnesses and helmets quickly became some of the city's heroes.

President of the Republic Zoran Milanovic recently hosted a reception for the group members and "thanked them for their unselfish engagement and work they have done in the past month," according to a press release from his office.

"You exposed yourself to much greater danger than Covid-19, I know how dangerous it is, and thank you for that," he said. "Your engagement was non-institutional, everything had to be organized quickly and it is good fortune that there are always good and selfless volunteers."

"People in Croatia usually don't think much of alpinism. We were really glad to have this opportunity to use the skills we learned in the mountains to help the community," says Lisac.

—Vedrana Simicevic is a journalist specializing in science, environmental and social issues. She lives in Rijeka, Croatia, and has been an active member of the Rijeka Alpine Club for more than 15 years.

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