Nitroglycerine, “a colourless liquid, without smell and almost without taste”, the dreaded explosive that will detonate at the slightest jolt or at a high temperature, was the only available explosive.
Two lorries were loaded and transported over rough mountain roads…
They started off. Three or four miles passed without incident. Johnny was driving. He had become lifeless, moving sluggish, heavy limbs. The headlights showed them nothing that lay more than two hundred yards ahead. Both of them, the Roumanian at the wheel and Gerard, who was chain-smoking cigarettes, were thinking with horror of the moment when they would reach the scene of the shambles. The air about them seemed heavy. Their fear had changed its nature. For the moment – certainly it would not last – they were simply terrified by the thought of what they had to encounter. . . . Men who had been living an hour before, with bodies like theirs, with eyes, with voices; and now nothing left to bear witness to their existence. No corpses. It was worse than ordinary death.
Presently the track began to deteriorate. As though it had been struck by a series of squalls, at first widely spaced, it was becoming ridged and scored. At first these patches were no more difficult than the bad part at the beginning, after they had climbed up to the plateau; but the headlights showed that conditions were getting steadily worse. Before long they became terrifying. Johnny was livid with fright. All the confidence that he had seemed to recover during the pause at Los Totumos had now deserted him. His hands were again shaking; again he fumbled with the pedals and the gear-lever. He passed from moments of paralysing, irrational panic to moments of violent, short-lived effort to recover his self-control, and the lorry felt the effects of his fluctuating moods. Once or twice the fatal jolt was very near.
‘Stop a minute,’ said Gerard. ‘There’s no sense in going on blindly at the risk of finding ourselves in a spot where we can’t go forward or back. Let’s walk a bit and see what it’s like.’
With torches in their hands and all the lights lit, including the spotlight, which carried farthest, they set out on foot over the disrupted earth. There seemed to be three zones of upheaval. The numerous shallow holes in the first zone, over which they had passed, had no doubt been caused by flying fragments. They came upon a fragment of a police licence-plate bearing the Corporation’s stamp. It must have come from the lorry itself, and they were still a long way from the crater, the site of the explosion.
Then there was a stretch of about fifty yards in which the earth of the track had been as it were concertina’d in wide ridges, which had evidently been produced by pressure below the surface. And the surface had been baked by successive waves of heat and pressure so that its crests and hollows were calcined and hard as rock: a series of concentric circles like stones in dried-up ponds, with other ponds outside them. If it had been still heaving and bubbling it would have been less dismaying than that dead state of cataclysm.
And beyond this the shadowy pit. There it was. It was not deep, not much more than three feet. The burst had been so violent that it had no time to penetrate. They had been scattered to the four winds, Juan Bimba, Luigi and a six-ton lorry with them – to the winds and the sky and the night.