Balvano train disaster
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Some of the corpses gathered in the Balvano railway station
|Date||3 March 1944|
|Time||after 00:50 AM|
|Rail line||Battipaglia–Metaponto railway|
|Operator||Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane|
|Type of incident||Carbon monoxide poisoning|
|Cause||excessive weight; bad quality coal; lack of natural ventilation in the tunnel|
|Deaths||517 (official figure by Italian Government)|
The Balvano train disaster was the deadliest railway accident in Italian history and one of the worst railway disasters ever. It occurred on the night between 2-3 March 1944 in southern Italy, near Balvano (Basilicata). In the event, some 426 people illegally riding a steam-hauled freight train died of carbon monoxide poisoning when the train stalled on a steep gradient in the "Galleria delle Armi" tunnel (English: Armi tunnel).
Naples suffered severe wartime shortages, encouraging an extensive black market. By 1944, the Allies had already defeated the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Opportunists in the city began bartering fresh produce for commodities brought by servicemen, and stowed away on freight trains to reach their suppliers' farms. The railway companies also experienced shortages of good-quality coal. The burning of low-grade substitutes produced a large volume of carbon monoxide which is an odourless, poisonous gas. This was a critical factor in the ensuing disaster.
At 7 PM on 2 March 1944 the freight train 8017 started from Battipaglia heading to Potenza on the Battipaglia–Metaponto railway. The train, hauled by two locomotives (in first position the 480.016, and then the 476.058), had a mass of 520 tonnes and also carried many illegal passengers, making it grossly overloaded. In Eboli some of them were forced to get off the train, but more boarded on following stops. At 00:50 AM the train left the station of Balvano, the last one before the disaster.
On the steeply graded Armi tunnel the train stalled with almost all the cars inside the tunnel. The passengers and crew were overcome by the smoke and fumes so slowly that they failed to notice the dangers. Most passengers died in their sleep and were found still in their resting position. Most of the few survivors were in the last few cars which were still in the open air. Rescuers later found that the driver of the 480.017 had tried until the last to restart the train in the forward direction, while the driver of the 476.058 locomotive at some point tried to engage the reverse gear in attempt to exit the tunnel; the two drivers were unable to communicate because the 476 was an Austrian-built locomotive with right-hand drive, while the 480 had left-hand drive. Much carbon monoxide gas was produced as a by-product of combustion, and carbon monoxide poisoning is a well recognized danger when machines are used, or fires occur, in enclosed environments. It combines with haemoglobin when inhaled, so the victim dies of anoxia (lack of oxygen). It is still the principal cause of death in mine disasters after a fire or explosion.
Only at 5:10 AM did the Balvano station master realize a disaster had happened, after being informed by the last car's brakesman Giuseppe De Venuto who survived and managed to reach the station walking on the tracks. At 5:25 AM an isolated locomotive reached the site but was unable to remove the train from the gallery due to the many corpses lying on the tracks; only some forty survivors in the last cars could be assisted. At 8:40 AM a second rescue team arrived and the line was eventually freed. Of the crew, one fireman (that of the second locomotive) and one brakeman survived.
Due to the number of corpses, the post-war lack of resources, and the weak mobbing power that the poor families of deceased people could exercise, victims were buried without a religious service at the Balvano cemetery, in four common graves.
The committee did not note any responsibility for the incident, which was considered as caused by "forza maggiore". However hypotheses were stated for some minor infractions: the train shouldn't have received authorisation to start from Battipaglia even if the two locomotives were nominally sufficient for towing, as it was known that the coal supplied was not able to develop sufficient power to maintain the maximum performance of the machines, and the train should have been put in order with some new regulations.
Concerns were raised about the timeliness of aid and the actions undertaken by the station masters of Balvano and Bella-Muro, who didn't act to determine the location of the train when it appeared late on the roadmap. However, in the post-war confusion it was usual for communications to be irregular, and trains could be greatly delayed. It was not uncommon that it would take over two hours to travel the mountainous 7 km between the two stations.
Initially it was also assumed that the drivers had not properly regulated sand boxes, which could prevent wheel spin.
Finally, the catastrophe was attributed mainly to:
"A combination of material causes, such as dense fog, atmospheric haze, complete lack of wind, which did not keep the natural ventilation of the tunnel, wet rails, etc., causes that unfortunately occurred all at once and in rapid succession. The train stopped because of the fact that it slid on the rails and the staff of the machines had been overwhelmed by the produced gas, before they could act to move the train out of the tunnel. Due to the presence of carbon monoxide, extraordinarily poisonous, it produced the asphyxiation of stowaways. The action of this gas is so rapid, that the tragedy occurred before any aid could be brought from the outside."
It was noted that the provisions for the composition of the train came straight from the Allied Command, and that in any case the train and station staff could not stop the train and modify it. The Command itself organized a train to check the condition of the disaster, with staff equipped with oxygen masks, which recognized the actual development of abnormal amounts of toxic gases.
Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane declined all responsibility, claiming that in the complex end-of-war set up (where Italian authorities coexisted with the US command) they couldn't even immediately determine who had the responsibility for the management of one particular train. However the company could be blamed because at that time, despite the high demand on the route between Naples and Potenza, there was only one scheduled passenger train (train 8021), which left from Naples twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, which prompted an increase in illegal ridership on freight trains.
In attempt to prevent criticism, the Ministry of Treasury provided refunds to the families of all identified victims as if they were war victims (although it was paid off after more than 15 years).
However, some sources indicates that many passengers on the train possessed a valid train ticket, which meant they were qualified as passengers and not as illegal. This possible scenery, if true, would imply a much higher refund to victims, and according to some was passed over in silence during the official investigations into the tragedy. In any case, official sources refer to those who were on the train, except railway staff, only the term "illegal immigrants". This position is supported by the fact that the train was classified as "freight" and therefore not authorized to carry paying passengers.
After the disaster a limit of 350 tonnes was introduced on the entire line. In addition, for particularly heavy trains requiring two locomotives, a composition of an American diesel locomotive and an Italian steam locomotive was used in place of a double steam drive. Furthermore, at the south exit of the Armi tunnel a permanent guard post was established, which allowed trains to enter the gallery only when exhaust gases from previous trains had vanished.
The guard post remained in place until 1959, when all steam trains were banned from the line. The weight regulations were repealed in 1996, when the line was electrified.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to 1944 Balvano train disaster.|
- Barneschi, Gianluca (2005). Balvano 1944: I segreti di un disastro ferroviario ignorato. Milano: Mursia. ISBN 88-425-3350-5.
- Peter Semmens, Railway Disasters of the World, Patrick Stephens Ltd (1994).