Before Italy's virus lockdown, a dash to the last train out

I was out to dinner in the medieval city of Padua when the text messages and phone calls started pouring in: The last train out leaves at 11:31 p.m. Get back to Rome before the military blocks the roads. “The decree goes into effect at midnight. Hurry!”

With those warnings, a weekend visiting my college-age daughter turned into a panicked, eight-hour overnight escape as the government sought to limit travel into and out of much of northern Italy, including Padua, in a bid to contain the coronavirus.

Chaos and rumor reigned as the proposed government decree leaked to Italian media hours before it was signed. Even after it went into force Sunday afternoon, it contained a prominent provision that implied people like me could go home and quarantine ourselves.

But I didn’t know that at the time. The fear that I would be trapped in Padua for days, weeks or months was real, evidence of the panic that erupted and spread domino-like as people made hurried escapes southward Saturday night.

Italy has been battling to contain COVID-19 for two weeks, after the first homegrown case was registered in the north on Feb. 21. A limited lockdown of a dozen towns in the Lombardy and Veneto regions failed to stop the spread of the virus, which by Sunday hit 7,375 infections with at least 366 dead. Italy now has the dubious distinction of having more positive cases than anywhere but China.

Padua, an ancient city about a half-hour from Venice, had not been part of the initial “red zone,” and there was little evidence in the historic center Saturday that it would soon be under quarantine. The University of Padua closed nearly two weeks ago, along with all Veneto schools, but students and residents filled bars and restaurants enjoying aperitivi in the city that claims to be the birthplace of the orange-tinted Italian cocktail, the Aperol Spritz.

In fact, my daughter and I were enjoying a spritz together around 6 p.m. Saturday when she chastised me for obsessively looking for virus updates on my phone. I promised her I wouldn’t look at the phone again while she went to a birthday party dinner at a pizzeria and I dined out with a friend.

Only when I returned to my hotel did I learn what had transpired in the few hours I was offline. The receptionist told me I had received calls. I looked at my phone: It was exploding with missed calls and messages informing me that the government would shut down Padua at midnight and everyone inside would have to remain, perhaps for months.

Since I needed to be back at work in Rome, I frantically investigated ways out: car rentals, taxis, a spare car loaned from a colleague. My friend found there was a last train out leaving at 11:31 p.m. bound for Rome. I called my daughter at the pizzeria and told her to pack her bags. We bought tickets online at 50 euro apiece.

After interviewing some students for an Associated Press video story on the lockdown, I jumped in a taxi to pick up my daughter. She emerged from her apartment with two suitcases and the contents of her refrigerator. She didn’t know when she might be back.

At the train station, people rushed through doorways dragging huge bags. Some wore face masks and latex gloves as they bought tickets on the Trenitalia machines. They looked as tense as I felt. It reminded me of the scenes from the last flight out of Saigon.

Shortly before 11:30 p.m. our train rolled into Platform 1. It was one of the older, slower intercity models that more than double travel time up and down the Italian peninsula.

But it was a train out.

As the doors of our second-class car opened, travelers rushed for the steps, pushing to get on. We had reserved seats, but not everyone else did. They packed the corridors, sitting on their suitcases or the floor.

Eventually we found our reserved spots. The other passengers in our six-seat cabin wore masks or scarves over their faces. They passed hand sanitizing gel around. No conductor ever came by to check tickets. No questions were asked. It was eerily quiet and stuffy.

I got out my computer and started editing the video. A man from Nanking, China studying at the university in Venice struck up a conversation. I wondered if he was trying to be friendly, afraid passengers might be hostile to him.

A woman from Calabria wearing a mask and gloves swiped through her phone frenetically trying to understand what was happening. No one was sure. At one point I had to climb over sleeping, cramped bodies in the corridor to get to the filthy toilet.

The trip was long. We stopped in Bologna for an hour. Then another long stop in Florence. I didn’t sleep. My daughter did.

Eventually we pulled into Rome as dawn rose over the Eternal City, some eight hours after we left Padua. We got into a taxi bound for home.

Home. Where, on doctor’s orders, my daughter and I will now spend 14 days of precautionary self-quarantine.