The true story that inspired “The Wave”

A Norwegian Tsunami

Nils (3) is too young to understand what is happening. He is lifted out of a window, and sees his mother for the last time. This is the true story of the day the wave hit Tafjord and Fjørå in the Norwegian county of Møre og Romsdal.

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The countdown started several hundred years ago. It accelerated in the fall of 1933. The crevice had become “frighteningly” large, according to some local dairymaids.

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People in Tafjord and Fjørå are about to feel it: On the night of April 7, 1934, it is all over.

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At 3:08 a.m. the rock face known as Langhammaren crashes into the fjord, causing tsunamis that reach a height of 63 meters and thunder under cover of darkness toward the sleeping villages.

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I n Tafjord, in the district of Sunnmøre, at the end of the fjord known as Storfjorden, five kilometers from the site of the rockslide, parson Anton L. Tafjord tosses and turns in bed. It is April 6, 1934. He had arrived that same day, on the boat Coronan, to celebrate his parents’ 78th and 80th birthdays. Several other guests had arrived on the same boat. There had been a party in the village. And now, after the party has ended, the parson has trouble sleeping. A little after 3:00 a.m. he is startled by a huge cracking sound. Soon he is wide awake. A sudden blast of wind, as if from a hurricane, roars through his bedroom. The house creaks. “What is going on?” he thinks. He listens. The sounds are inexplicable. Whooshing and roaring, they come ever closer, grow ever stronger. He jumps up, looks out the window, and is shocked by what meets his eye. Is that a snowdrift hurtling down the fjord? Or a waterspout? Something as high as the house he is standing in, is racing toward him. And he is on the second floor.

Before the disaster: Tafjord lies at the end of a fjord in Sunnmøre. In this photo from 1921 the rock face Langhammaren is indicated with an arrow. A little over 200 people lived in the village when the rock face crashed into the fjord and the wave hit.
Before the disaster: Tafjord lies at the end of a fjord in Sunnmøre. In this photo from 1921 the rock face Langhammaren is indicated with an arrow. A little over 200 people lived in the village when the rock face crashed into the fjord and the wave hit.

The villagers in the picturesque villages of Tafjord and Fjørå have no idea what is happening. It is impossible to see anything in the dark. The sound is what awakens them. Like a roar from nature, the rock face Langhammaren crashes into the fjord. People are awakened for miles around. “Worse than dynamite,” says one survivor, “all the houses shook.” The sounds are so inexplicable that many people think Judgement Day is upon them.

Wild idyll: The nature along the coast of Western Norway attracts thousands of tourists. Here from Geiranger, near Storfjorden where the rockslide occurred. Photo: Dreamstime
Wild idyll: The nature along the coast of Western Norway attracts thousands of tourists. Here from Geiranger, near Storfjorden where the rockslide occurred. Photo: Dreamstime

Beautiful, Wild Norway

Sheer mountains, deep fjords, green-white glaciers and white waterfalls. The nature in Norway doesn’t get much wilder than in Tafjord and Fjørå. This municipality, wedged between Geiranger and the dramatic mountain road known as Trollstigen, is a UNESCO World Heritage sight. Countless national-romantic paintings and postcards have come from here.

But the natural hazards are rarely mentioned. Natural disasters like tsunamis happen in other countries. But those who live here, in the midst of this idyll, know how dangerous nature can be.

That is why few settled along the shore. But as time passed, it was as if any earlier tsunamis were forgotten. In April of 1934 around 200 people lived in Fjørå and almost 300 in Tafjord, 200 of them on the waterfront. Not until modern times have we learned that “the big one” tends to send some warning signals first. Before the big rockslide in 1934 there were several signs: Frequent rock falls. Loud booms. Growing cracks. Small earthquakes.

During the spring of 1934 the villagers in Fjørå experienced constant rock falls. They pulled their rowboats further up on land, as if they suspected something. The winter was unusually mild. The melting snow filled all the crevices with water.

April 6 is overcast. The fjord lies still. Many of the houses have Easter visitors. Then people start going to bed in Fjørå and Tafjord. The sun is long gone and darkness creeps down the mountainside, over the villages and down to the fjord. The clock ticks closer to 3:00 a.m. A countdown that started several hundred years ago comes to an end as three million cubic meters of stone crash into the fjord.

Primary sources

This story was told in the dramatic documentary novel «Dommedagsfjellet – Tafjord 1934», written by geologist Astor Furseth, who is the primary source for this article, in addition to newspapers from the days after the rockslide (see source list at bottom).

Animation: Gimpville / Fantefilm
Fjørå, 3:08 a.m.

“Lift Asbjørg out on the roof!”

People are torn from their sleep. Is it an earthquake? Thunder? Has Langhammaren fallen? The crevice was known in Fjørå. As early as 1874 a local newspaper wrote that the villagers of Fjørå had discovered a network of cracks on the top of the mountain. Over the next 60 years they watch the crevice grow. Few people throw fishing nets under this mountain. The mountain is restless, they say. In the fall of 1933 the villagers of Fjørå also become anxious. Dairymaids from farms up on the mountain report an alarming change. Before, they could jump over the crevice. Now it has become “frighteningly” large, large enough to build bridges across, according to the dairymaids.

An elderly couple refuses to move. They sit on their bed, fold their hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer. They think Judgement Day is upon them, as described in the Book of Revelation: “The mountains will fall on us.”

People in Fjørå are awakened by the sound of the rockslide. They stare out into the night, but see nothing. In utter darkness the hellish sounds die down, only to be replaced by a strange silence. Then the villagers hear a roar. The sound of the first of three tsunamis. It surges toward them, like a black wall. Those who see it, try to flee, climbing up on roofs, jumping out of windows.

An elderly couple refuses to move. They sit on their bed, fold their hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer. They think Judgement Day is upon them, as described in the Book of Revelation: “The mountains will fall on us.”

Frothing: This is how the rockslide may have looked. The visualization is based on a photo of an aftershock the day after the rockslide – exactly where Langhammaren fell. Photo: Arild Aga. Visualization: Gjermund Rein Gustavsen
Frothing: This is how the rockslide may have looked. The visualization is based on a photo of an aftershock the day after the rockslide – exactly where Langhammaren fell. Photo: Arild Aga. Visualization: Gjermund Rein Gustavsen

Eight-year-old Asbjørg Lyse hears someone yell: “Lift Asbjørg out on the roof!” Her father holds Asbjørg’s two-year-old little sister wrapped in a rug. Her mother leans out the window and yells: “God help us!” Before the second wave hits, Asbjørg, her brother and her 68-year-old grandmother manage to get out. The wave is right behind them. They run up the mountainside. Suddenly ice-cold seawater crashes over them. Asbjørg clings to her grandmother’s nightgown. Her grandmother clings to a fence. When Asbjørg finally dares turn, she sees her childhood home be swept out to sea. Her parents, grandfather, uncle, girlfriend and little sister are all stuck inside. Terrified screams are heard. Then everything goes quiet.

Tafjord, 3:08 a.m.

“Close the door! Hold it shut!”

The extended family in the local tailor’s house is suddenly awakened. Their house lies next to the shore in Tafjord. Sigrid and Karl Tafjord live here with nine children ages seven to 27. Son Adolf (20) runs down from the second floor to see what is going on. He stops in his tracks. Water is rushing into the house. Then he hears his father yell from the bedroom upstairs:
“Close the door! Hold it shut!”

Cries of terror and screams of pain are heard from animals and people. Something terrible is happening in Tafjord, they just don’t know what.

The parents and the nine children try to hold the door closed, horror-stricken, as the house is washed away and sinks to the bottom of the fjord. But there is another part to the story: Adolf sees the wave crash through the wall of the house. He sees his sister and father be devoured by the water. The wave hits Adolf as he tries to escape through a window. He is dragged out into the fjord by the backwash, unconscious. Then he wakes up miraculously in the middle of the fjord. He clings to a board from the demolished village. Lying out on the fjord he sees what’s left of Tafjord. But then the third and biggest wave, 63 meters at its highest, rears up behind Adolf. He loses consciousness again.

Petra and Anton Kilsti live next door with their three-year-old son Nils. The young couple, who ran the general store, had already lost a child before they had Nils. He was the family’s jewel.

On April 6 Petra’s parents came to visit. They hadn’t been to Tafjord in ten years. They came to see the family and attend the parson’s parents’ birthday party. “Is that a rockslide?” Petra asks, when they are awakened by the sound.

Her husband pulls the curtains aside. But it’s too dark to see anything. Then a violent blast of wind hits the house. The house is filled with light, as if from lightning. They don’t know it at the time, but when the first tsunami hit the village, it short-circuited everything, leaving behind nothing but flickering violet lights. It is in these flashes of light, the survivors recall, that they first realize the extent of the disaster.

The Kilsti family immediately jumps out of bed.

“I was in water to my belt and held my child to my chest as the wave swept over us. Several houses were crushed to kindling as we watched”, Anton Kilsti recalls.

As Anton Kilsti looks outside, he sees something strange approach from the fjord. It looks like nothing he has seen before. Then he hears “a roar as if from a thousand waterfalls,” as the monster wave rises out of the black night.

“Bring the boy!” he yells, “Bring the boy!”
He hopes it’s possible to get out the back window. Here is what Anton reported to newspapers afterwards:

Lights flashed and blinked as the first wave came and took our boathouse. I looked out and saw that the water was as high as the roof. I almost thought the entire mountain had crashed into the fjord. The roar was like Judgement Day. Then the second wave came, which was much bigger. It was terrible. I opened the window and yelled to my wife:
“Bring the boy!”

I jumped down on the warehouse roof behind our house. Petra passed Nils down to me, and I told her to follow. But she didn’t. She ran back into the house to alert her parents. I jumped down into the water and mud with Nils. We crawled, jumped over a fence and climbed up to Storsteinen (“Big Rock”, a high point in Tafjord). There I met Mrs. Lina Muldal and her three boys. I handed Nils to Mrs. Muldal so I could run back to my house and help my wife and parents-in-law. Then I saw something terrible on the fjord (probably the third wave). It looked as if the entire ocean was coming at us. It bounced off the mountainsides. I ran back to Storsteinen. I was in water to my belt and held my child to my chest as the wave swept over us. Several houses were crushed to kindling as we watched, he reported.

Lina Muldal is from Fjørå. She knows what has happened. “Langhammaren has fallen!” she says. Her husband had also run to warn his parents. Lina Muldal, her three children, Anton Kilsti and Nils look out at Tafjord from their porch on Storsteinen. They hear screams from the injured and from people in houses flooded with water. Anton and the three-year-old watch their own house, with Petra and her parents inside, get smashed, and the remains get sucked out to sea. The same thing happens to Lina Muldal and her children. They see the house containing their father and his parents disappear into the churning waters.

The wave took mother: Nils (3) and his father Anton photographed at the memorial service after the rockslide. Nils’ mother and grandparents disappeared.
The wave took mother: Nils (3) and his father Anton photographed at the memorial service after the rockslide. Nils’ mother and grandparents disappeared.

Back to parson Anton L. Tafjord, who thought he saw a snowdrift or a waterspout (probably the third wave). His house is never hit by the waves. As the water after the third wave retreats into the fjord, the parson hears a whimper. He looks outside and finds a severely wounded boy.

He has lost consciousness several times, but wakes up as he is racing down the fjord with the last wave. His speed is estimated at around 160 km/h.

“How did you get here?” the parson asks, according to an interview in the newspaper Aftenposten a few days later.

“I came with the flood,” the boy responds.

The boy is Adolf, the 20-year-old who saw his father and sister get sucked out of their house, and who himself was carried out into the middle of the fjord. He has lost consciousness several times, but wakes up as he is racing down the fjord with the last wave. His speed is estimated at around 160 km/h. As the wave hits land, he is tossed ashore and lands in front of the post office. This is where parson Tafjord finds him. Delirious, the 20-year-old is reported to have said:

“Over the crag I swam between wreckage and horrors. It was like swimming amongst monsterous ghosts.”

The parson gets him inside. The boy is later transported to a hospital. He is the only surviving member of his family. He lost his parents and eight siblings that night.

Annihilation: All the houses along the shore in Tafjord were devoured by the waves. Most disappeared into the deep, others floated around as a result of the disaster.
Annihilation: All the houses along the shore in Tafjord were devoured by the waves. Most disappeared into the deep, others floated around as a result of the disaster.

The Day After

People walk around Fjørå and Tafjord in the black night, calling out for the missing. As dawn’s first light appears over the mountains, they see the cause of the tragedy. There is a white scar where Langhammaren once was. The smell of crushed rock and fire fills the air, the snow on the mountains is brown with dust. The sea is full of boards and houses drifting around, ghost-like. In Tafjord the houses have been smashed to pieces. “A terrible sight,” according to an Aftenposten photographer who flew over the scene. Everything lies helter skelter. A boulder several meters across stands in the middle of a field. The stone monument honoring fallen from the War of 1814 lies broken in two. Dead cats, goats and lambs are found in the bushes. A screaming cow is butchered in a field. Furniture lies smashed. Small children’s shoes, a rocking horse, some toy boats lie spread around. Bedding, clothes and ropes hang from the trees. Hymn books, chests, Christmas-tree flags, everything in one unholy mess. The boat Coronan has been tossed 100 meters inland. Foundations stand like gaping wounds. Entire families have been wiped out. People walk around apathetically.

Fjørå after the tsunami
Fjørå before the tsunami
Fjørå before and after the wave: Slide over the photo
Frightening: Fjørå before and after the natural disaster.

When young Nils wakes up, he says: “Mom went with the house, didn’t she?” Anton tries to comfort him. Someone gives Anton a glass of something with which to fortify himself. He is shaking so badly he is unable to hold it. He searches for his wife Petra. But where their house once stood, even the foundation is gone. Someone comes carrying a lifeless person. Anton sees a foot dangle from the stretcher. He recognizes the blister tape on the foot. It is Petra.

Twenty-three people died in Tafjord, 17 in Fjørå. Only two are found on shore, most are never found at all. Several of the survivors were never able to speak about the disaster again. This was probably the first natural disaster in Norway to receive such comprehensive national media coverage.

Remembering the wave: A number of TV reports have been produced over the years regarding the Tafjord disaster. All rights NRK

Yet slowly but surely the memories fade. And the lesson learned from the Tafjord disaster seems to gradually be forgotten as well.

The Countdown Has Started Again

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The countdown started several hundred years ago. About once every century we experience a “major rockslide”. It happened in 1934. It happened before then. And now it can happen again.

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This isn’t mere tabloid fodder, but what geologists and scientists are saying about the Åknes mountain near Geiranger. The Geiranger fjord is among the world’s most beautiful. Cruise ships bring tourists daily. But there is one thing the tourists don’t hear about until after they have left Geiranger: the threat from Åknes mountain, and the over 800 meter long and up to 200 meter deep crevice in the mountain.

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Per Åkernes first discovered the crevice. He grew up under the mountain. In 1983, after being away for 30 years, he returns to what is now an abandoned village. He climbs up the mountain where he was a goatherd as a young boy. Then he sees it. The shock almost makes the level-headed man scream. When he was a boy, he could barely squeeze his fist into the crevice up there. Now it’s two meters wide, 20 meters at the widest. He knows how much has been built down along the fjord. He immediately gives warning. But he notices that his warnings are either hushed down or not taken seriously. People are worried about the tourists the area is so dependent on. But the crevice is there. And it has continued growing by eight to ten centimeters a year since regular monitoring began in 1989.

The crevice lies 400 meters above the fjord. Over 50 million cubic meters of stone can crash into the fjord. In comparison, three million cubic meters fell in the Tafjord disaster. When the Åknes rockslide hits the fjord, tsunamis will hit Geiranger and Hellesylt within minutes. Simulations performed at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology show that the wave can race through the fjords at 400 kilometers per hour. In Hellesylt the wave has been calculated to reach 85 meters, in Geiranger 70 meters. Today those calculations are assumed to be low, and will most likely be adjusted upwards.

It can happen again: Geologist Kjell Jogerud describes the nightmare scenario in Hellesylt and Geiranger when the expected rockslide occurs. All rights: NRK and Steven N Ward. Simulation: Åknes Tafjord Beredskap IKS og NGI

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When will it happen? As producer Martin Sundland from the film The Wave, which is based on the Tafjord disaster and the likely Åknes rockslide, was told when he arrived at the Preparedness Center by the crevice:

“The mountain can fall in 30 years or 100 years. But nature is nature. You’re standing here at your own peril.”

The disaster movie “The Wave” premiered in Norway on August 28, 2015.

Other places where a rockslide may come

In Norway several mountains are monitored around the clock by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate:

1. Åkerneset in Møre og Romsdal
2. Hegguraksla in Møre og Romsdal
3. Mannen (will dam a river and create a flood wave, not a tsunami)
4. Nordneset in Troms
5. Opstadhornet in Romsdal
6. Flåm in Sogn

In addition there are several mountains in Norway that are monitored periodically, where tsunamis also may occur if there is a rockslide.

Source: Astor Furseth

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