Bibliografia Ferroviaria Italiana
[Pubblicato in "Locomotives in our lives" di A. Sheldon Pennoyer, New York, Hastings House, 1954, pagina 137]
As I was in Salerno at the time of the greatest rail disaster ever known in Italy, which happened only a few miles away at Balvano, I got first-hand information from both the Italian and American railway men. They said that wartime curtailment of service and motive power failure were the direct causes of this terrific disaster, which took the unprecedented number of 472 lives. None of the English or American railroad men were in any way responsible, the train and line where the accident took place being entirely in Italian hands at the time.
I think you will agree conditions leading up to the catastrophe were unusual. The practice of buying farm produce in outlying districts, hitchhiking a ride on a freight going to town, where these smalltime schemers could sell at a great profit, had gotten well out of control of the few guards the railroad could muster. The victims of this tunnel tragedy were in that category, for though this particular freight train had been cleared of passengers before starting on its journey, masses of people rushed it at the next station or two and, according to one theory, completely overloaded it.
The two locomotives lumbered upgrade and pulled the train into a tunnel where the driving wheels lost traction on wet rails. First one and then the other locomotive failed. All attempts to start again proved futile and, as there was no ventilation, the exhausting steam and monoxide gas rapidly spread in the confined space and enveloped all but the few who escaped. The men I talked with said the type of coal used had an unusually high gas content, which accounted largely for the rapidity of asphyxiation; for, contrary to the panic which might have occurred, many passengers were found still in conversation or sleeping positions, while trainmen were at their posts and one engineer was found to have closed his throttle and applied the brakes before he died. There are no records here to consult, but is this not the highest number of dead in a railway accident? 1
1 The final total count of 521 dead in this wreck was disclosed several years after the war by the Associated Press, making it the world’s worst rail disaster.