Not before or since the bizarre disaster aboard Italian freight train No. 8017 has such an incident occurred. Because it happened during W. W. II the details were censored.... The Balvano Limited was not involved in a collision, nor was it bombed, strafed, or derailed, yet the loss of life within one tragic hour made it one of the major rail disasters of the century.
When: Shortly after 1 A.M. on March 3, 1944.
Where: Near Balvano, Italy, in the mountains inland from Salerno.
The Loss: An estimated 500 lives.
The Cause: Naples, Italy, suffered from wartime shortages and so did the railroads. First-grade coal normally used in locomotives was not available. The burning of 3rd- and 4th-grade substitutes produced a heavy volume of odorless, poisonous carbon monoxide gas, a fact that went unnoticed.
Many city dwellers--unwilling to go without butter, eggs, poultry, and dairy products--joined the increasing number of black market opportunists. They bartered with servicemen for cigarettes, candy, and gum, then exchanged these commodities for farm products that brought tremendously high prices in Naples. To reach the farmers they stole rides on freight trains that were forbidden to carry passengers. But hundreds of people rode these trains every day, another fact that went unnoticed, officially.
The Disaster: Swirling rain churned the thousands of puddles in the Salerno railroad yards and showered from the 47 cars of the Balvano Limited. Twenty of them were empties scheduled to return with civilian and military goods. It was a dark foul night just after 6 P.M. on March 2, 1944. By the time the Limited, No. 8017, reached Eboli, a few miles beyond Battipaglia, it was 7:12 P.M. and more than 100 illegal riders huddled together on open flat cars. Then came Persano and Romagnano. At each stop the number of riders increased. A 2nd locomotive was hooked on front for the 27 mountainous mi. ahead.
It was 11:40 P.M. and now No. 8017 carried 650 illegal passengers. The train chugged slowly upward another 4 mi. to stop at the small Balvano station that lay between 2 long tunnels. A downhill train was having locomotive trouble. While No. 8017 waited for the "clear track ahead" signal, half of its 47 cars were in the lower tunnel wrapped in a blanket of black coal smoke left by its 2 locomotives. Not a breath of air stirred in the tunnel for 38 minutes. Without knowing they were in danger the railroad hitchhikers, enjoying a respite from the biting rain, breathed deeply of monoxide as they fell asleep.