The story of the greatest Italian railway disaster: what happened to Balvano in 1944

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In the night between 2 and 3 March 1944 in Basilicata occurred the Balvano railway disasterthe most serious in Italian history and one of the worst in the world for number of victims. That night the train was carrying many more passengers than expected and, unfortunately, after getting stuck inside a tunnel, it released so many fumes that it poisoned the carbon monoxide well 501 people – even if unofficial sources speak of values above 600. But what exactly happened?

The train with 600 passengers

The vehicle involved in the accident is the freight train 8017, which left Naples and headed for Potenza. Since it was a train for transporting loads it should not have carried passengers but in the post-war period this was the case a rather frequent practicegiven that many people reduced to starvation went to Basilicata to buy basic necessities on the black market.
The police obviously tried to limit this practice, but nevertheless that evening there were approximately 600 people.

After leaving Naples the vehicle reached Battipaglia, where a second locomotive was added and another 24 wagons: this was a problem because, by doing so, the maximum towable on the line was exceeded. This limit was not only linked to locomotive power but also to a safety issue linked to poor air circulation inside the tunnels along the route: the tragedy will take place inside one of these.

The causes of the accident

The offending tunnel is the Weapons Gallery located between the station of Balvano And Bella-Muro. On that night no wind the train began to pass through the tunnel but the presence of mist dampened the tracks: this, combined withexcessive load and to high gradient of the sectioncaused the convoy to be blocked, with only two carriages already outside the tunnel.

We tried in vain to do so strain the locomotives to get back on track, but producing large quantities of smoke which began to invade the entire tunnel: the staff began to lose consciousness and so did most of the passengers on board. View thealmost total absence of air circulationalmost all those present died of asphyxiation from carbon monoxide.
Only two people were saved: the stoker Luigi Ronga and the brakeman Giuseppe De Venuto.

Responsibilities for the tragedy

Despite what we might think, the parliamentary commission at the time did not reveal any responsibility for the incident and ruled that the accident was caused by:

a combination of material causes, such as dense fog, atmospheric haze, complete lack of wind, which did not maintain the natural ventilation of the tunnel, damp rails, etc., causes which unfortunately occurred all together and in rapid succession. The train stopped due to slipping on the tracks and the engine crew were overcome by gas poisoning before they could act to lead the train out of the tunnel. Due to the presence of carbonic acid, extraordinarily poisonous, the asphyxiation of stowaway passengers occurred. The action of this gas is so rapid, that the tragedy occurred before any outside help could be brought.

Since no one was found guilty, the families of the victims threatened to sue the State Railways: to avoid having further legal problems, the Treasury Ministry issued a compensation to families as if they were victims of war.