Stories from the Flood
The year is 1954, July 2. Along the Bistrica River, high above Blagoevgrad, a calamity is brewing. At around 4 p.m. a powerful downpour turns the forest soil into a muddy stew of debris, and as the river grows in power, a wall of uprooted trees and rocks block its flow, turning the trapped water into a deadly dam. Soon the pressure becomes too much and the wall bursts open causing an avalanche of black foaming water to unleash on Blagoevgrad. Shops, houses, animals, and people are devoured by the forest tsunami. It is the flood that Blagoevgrad will never forget.
One thing water can’t wash away is memory. As the flood was blindly consuming the city, both children and adults saw the destruction. From stranded people on roofs to officers taken away by the current, the memories of the people who have lived through the horror are still alive in the streets of Blagoevgrad. The following stories are of the men and women who witnessed the flood of 1954.
Ivanka Vasileva: "I was ten at that time. Me and my little brother went to see what is going on. There was water everywhere. Wild water. Overflowing. A lot of people, a lot of victims died then. There was this cinema above us. The people inside were trapped. They could not leave the projection so they climbed the roof of the building and watched the river from there. Shops and small houses were destroyed by the water. I watched the soldiers taking out bolts of fabric from the river. After the flood, a lot of people were collecting the washed-up fabric so they can sell it. The fabric was all muddy and dirty. My mother used to buy the fabric and sew clothes out of it for us."
Jordan Krekmanski: "I was around 27 or 28. I saw the river, everything was in fabric. I saw an officer who jumped in to try and save a woman. The water was too powerful. He couldn’t save her and both were washed away by the water. I don’t know what happened to them afterwards. Up the river lived a man who had a watermill. He and two children hid in his house. The water was getting stronger and stronger but they couldn’t escape. The whole house was destroyed and the man and the kids were taken away by the water. It was awful, just awful."
Lydia Popdimitrova: "I remember the flood happening. The rope bridge coming from the old School of Economics and going to the other side of the river. I remember the short and very chubby Russian, Mishe. The water has almost reached the bridge but Mishe lived on the other side. I remember how by the time he crossed, the bridge had already disappeared into the river. On the main street, there were those little shops where they sell sweets and other things. I remember how a shop was lifted by the water and got carried like a boat. It was awful. We had a garden above Strumsko where the highway to Sofia is. There were more than one hundred poplars that my father had planted. Everything was in bolts of fabric, and those bolts of fabric were wrapped around the poplars. The soldiers were ordered to dig them up with shovels and pickaxes. Me and my sister asked them to give us some of the fabric so we can make dolls because at that time there were no such things."
Dobrinka Koceva: "Back then I was in my last year in high school. There were that man and woman. They were working for the Red Cross. He was a doctor and she was a clerk. The flood came. The water took them away. Both of them got a hold of a door and began riding it as a boat. Whenever the door was submerged, they were submerged as well. Thank God for the small island along the river. They were washed up on it and managed to survive. The water even took off the woman’s clothes. She was completely naked. A colleague of mine that lived in Strumsko, while herding her cattle, saw the same naked woman and started screaming ‘Ghost! Ghost!’ Later on, some soldiers took care of the stranded woman."
Kiril Markov: "I was nine. As kids, we heard the river roaring and then we saw a big wall of water coming at us. We got out of our house and went high up at the Loven Dom Park. From there we observed what happened in Varosha. I hadn't seen so much water. The water was muddy, with a dark coffee brown color. It carried huge rocks that had turned oval from all the rolling in the river. The shock wave hit the central bridge. The wood particles blocked the bridge and the river started pouring from the sides into the streets. A salesman from one of the many shops escaped from the incoming water and from the roof of the shop started waving a white sheet to signal that he is alive and needs help. The director of the bank, Ivan Nikolov, had his house washed away by the river. It was on the other side of the church. His grandmother was in the house. This is when grandma Iordanka died. Poor lady. The flood reached the church’s yard, but never entered in the yard nor the church.”
The flood of 1954 left Blagoevgrad in a state of devastation and scarred the city’s memory. A total of 13 people died, families lost their homes, houses were destroyed and many farm animals were washed away by the river. Crops in Blagoevgrad and the surrounding villages were ruined while the water supply was cut and in some areas of the city the power grid was down. The estimated damages from the flood were around 28 million lev.
However, the destruction didn’t paralyze Blagoevgrad. On the next day, Mayor Milan Zashev declared a state of emergency. All men between the ages of 18 to 60 were mobilized and organized. Both civilians and soldiers joined forces in the clean-up and restoration of the city as well as other affected villages. Over the years, Blagoevgrad was rebuilt with the help of a working force from Sofia and state funding. The flood of 1954 was a deadly calamity that not only reshaped the infrastructure of the city but marked and changed the lives of several generations of people from Blagoevgrad.
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