The setting is Italy, March of 1944. Mussolini has been ousted and the Germans are being driven out of the country. In the midst of the war efforts, a train sets out from the city of Balvano on the night of the 2nd. Five hundred people never make it to their destination.
It was common practice during those times for civilians and soldiers alike to just hop on the nearest convenient train and hitch a ride to their destination. Thus, after leaving Salerno and passing through multiple cities, Train No. 8017 (a cargo train not authorized to carry people) had collected over 600 illegal passengers by the time it reached Balvano. After that, it was up the mountain to the city of Potenza. Part of the route went through a long, steeply graded tunnel. This is where the disaster occurred.
The grossly overloaded train stalled partway up the tunnel. Carbon monoxide fumes from the locomotives slowly overtook the cars, suffocating the crew and passengers. The only survivors of the incident were in the last few cars, which were still out in the open air. Due to the war, communications between stations were intermittent and huge delays in the schedule were not uncommon. Thus, a search party was not sent out until many hours after the train had been due.
The biggest factor in this tragedy is thought to have been the coal. Italy does not have much in the way of coal reserves and most of it had to be imported. During the war what could be procured was of very low quality, and didn’t allow locomotives to run at full power. Most importantly, though, this low quality coal burned very dirty and produced much more CO than normal coal. The whole thing may not have happened if coal of high quality had been available.
The incident was kept quiet by the Italian authorities, who were busy trying to free the country and did not have resources to handle the situation properly. Bodies were buried in a mass grave outside Balvano, and families of those victims that could be identified were compensated as if they were “war casualties”. No official death toll was ever declared but it was known to be at the very least in the mid 400s and possibly as high as 500.
Unfortunately more exact details of this tragedy were swept up in the war and have been lost to history. Due to the lack of reporting on the accident, very few primary sources exist and most of what’s out there is in Italian.
This excerpt from the Bridgeport Times was published in 1951, seven years after the tragedy