The FCE broad gauge network
The Neneo Ruca accident in 1939
A tragic railway accident, near Comallo, in 1939
By Carlos Espinosa, originally published at http://www.appnoticias.com.ar/desarro_noti.php?cod=24789
Viedma — The middle part of this account was taken from the incomplete memoires of don Elman Compoy (father), a resident of Carmen de Patagones who died a few years ago, and who was a railwayman like his father, Ramón Campoy, and his homonymous son who lives in this area.
These papers, typewritten with great effort, following don Elman's two strokes, which left half his body paralysed, came to me from the hands of Nancy Pague, a schoolteacher, who had received them from their author for editing.
I have taken the liberty of making some grammatical corrections to the originals, and have added press information taken from the weekly periodical La Nueva Era. I believe it results in a powerful and dramatic testimony of the sacrificial labour of railwaymen in Southern Argentina. It reveals, moreover, that it was a human failing which resulted in the terrible accident in which there were, providentially, only two dead.
Don Elman Campoy's account
“I believe that it was in 1938 or 1939 (it was precisely 22 March 1939, according to what was stated in the periodical La Nueva Era) and I was then about eight or nine years old, an age when the days were all the same and in the box of souvenirs – that which we call memory – the things which happened, and impacted profoundly, remain registered, and in every individual very differently.
Our family group was very numerous, made up of parents and a total of eight siblings. We were having a very bad time, so bad that it ended the lives of my two elder brothers. I remember that, even worse, was a sister in a very delicate state, whom my father had taken to the hospital, which is known today as Dr Pedro Ecay's, where she was getting better, giving way to a distinct phase.
The problems which appeared were the currents, passengers, who came and went. But one day the alarm was sounded in a situation which I shall never forget. My Mother and my elder sisters had worried faces and were crying, trying to avoid alarming us, and thus avoiding our being able to see this state which brought about fear.
What had happened? I asked myself. More and more folk came to our house. All older people, who exchanged greetings and talked briefly.
What had happened? In passing, I could sense that someone said: 'What a disaster! It must have been terrible!' And someone else added 'Poor Ramón!'. Or perhaps it was 'Poor Dad!'. And this caused an explosion in my head, with a thousand questions that did not have answers. 'What had happened to my Dad?' 'Why Dad?' 'Why Dad, if he were a saint?' I cried and I slowly went to sleep. When I awoke my head was a gale.
Later a railway staff telegram arrived, in which my Father had sent a message from Neneo Ruca station saying that he was well, and that the accident had happened barely two kilometres from there, with dead and injured. This news brought relief to the house, but a few days passed before Dad returned south, and related a vivid account. Tranquillity was restored, adding to the enjoyment of his account.
The collision had been between two trains, with the death of the two engine drivers as a consequence of the impact: Niechi who drove the Maffei engine 341, along with fireman López, on a goods train coming from Pilcaniyeu (in the Bariloche to Viedma direction); and Ferrer who drove the Baldwin engine 500 on the passenger train heading for Bariloche, with a fireman called Castro.
Dad related that Fireman López – of the train coming from Bariloche – had saved his own life because Driver Niechi had got him to jump off the engine before the impact, while he himself awaited death at his driving position.
He added, for his part, Ferrer and Castro – driver and fireman of the engine of the train which was heading for the Cordillera – were flattened by a refrigerator wagon, which was running as a barrier wagon, and forced the engine's tender up against the roof of the cab.
Needless deaths, the three – added Dad – since the crew of the passenger train, which was heading for Bariloche, should not have left Comallo station until the goods train from Pilcaniyeu shunted clear and was held at Neneo Ruca. But they had to obey the orders of the Duty Controller – Señor Fragoza – and they left towards the tragedy.
My Father was the parcels guard on the passenger train, señor Pancho Larrosa was travelling as coach cleaner, and he recounted that at the moment of the collision the train and its passageway was turned into a hell by the cries of pain and the terrible confusion.
He also said that – in the help given to the injured passengers – there was worthy action taken by the youthful national deputy named Alfredo Palacios.”
Up to here is the extract of the notes from the memory of don Elman Campoy.
The press reports of the time
In the pages of the periodical La Nueva Era in the 1939 collection in the newspaper library of the Emma Nozzi museum in Carmen de Patagones, one can find confirmation of the news of the tragedy in two editions, the first for Saturday 25 March of that year, and the second for Saturday 1 April.
In the weekly paper edited in Patogones for 25 March, a news item with the Heading “A railway accident with fatal consequences happened en Neneo Ruca”.
The article said the following.
“In the afternoon of Wednesday a serious rumour circulated in the capital of the Territory: a railway accident with fatal consequences had occurred and they mentioned several dead and many injured.
Lamentably the news was true, although the number of dead was smaller than had been thought originally. All had to lament the death of two modest railwaymen. The tragic event took place near the locality of Neneo Ruca in the district of Comallo.
At 13:30 hours there was a violet collision between a passenger rain going to San Carlos de Bariloche and a goods train which had left there. The collision was violent, and resulted in the deaths of the engine drivers of both trains, called Ferrer and Niessen.
In addition, the firemen Castro and Ruiz received serious injuries. Among the passengers, with the exception of one lady, there were only simple bruises. Señora Alicia Hawe de Venturini was seriously injured.”
A week later, on 1 April 1939, the same periodical La Nueva Era was headed: “The train service has returned to normality after the disaster at Comallo.”
The brief account, written in Comallo, stated thus.
“Sunday past, with the arrival of a breakdown crane from Puerto Galván which worked painstakingly at the site of the accident of which our readers already know about, the line to Bariloche was cleared, the diesel train started its normal journey and returned as timetabled as the passenger train for that day, although it is certain that it ran some hours late due to force majeur. Today the railway is running normally.
Our correspondent makes known to us that thanks are due to the Head of the National Post in Neuquén, señor Galván, for assistance given at the start of the painful event; likewise señor Reino del Monte, head teacher of School 114, don Angel Andrés Agüero, Fortunato Zazú and others. The latest news is that firemen Laureano Castro and Emiliano Ruiz are in the Federal Capital, where they have improved, as has the passenger Alicia Harby de Venturini who also went straight to Buenos Aires.”
The information in the notes from La Nueva Era differ from the account given by don Elman Campoy in some respects:
1) It shows that Fireman Castro, of the passenger train, travelling towards Bariloche, was saved in the accident.
2) It identifies the engine driver of the goods train as having the surname Niessen in place of Necchi.
3) It notes the fireman of the same train as Emiliano Ruiz, called López in Campoy's account.
The account, published a few days after the tragedy, did not give any hypothesis as to the causes of the tremendous collision, and this silence may be understood as La Nueva Era's editor's support for the national government of the period – of conservative tendencies – and in a lack of interest in establishing the ultimate responsibility.
On the other hand, it did record that the railway service was back to normal within a few days, as if this was the only matter of importance.
The chronicler considers that it was appropriate to record the national deputy Alfredo Palacios, the first socialist national deputy in America, who in 1939 was 58 years old; and was thus not as young as Campoy mentions in his account. There is no newspaper reference that he could have been a passenger in that train involved in a tragedy that was notably small in relation to the magnitude of the impact between the two engines.
The photo which illustrates this note showing the result of the collision was found on [this] web site.
Observations in relation to the cause of the accident, added for the present website.
The line was equipped with train staff equipment for each section. The assumption is that here the sections extended from station to station – that is Comallo to Neneo Ruca and Neneo Ruca to Pilcaniyeu.
Because of the location of the accident, two kilometres from Neneo Ruca and hence about 16 km from Comallo, the passenger train must have left Comallo some appreciable time before the goods train left Neneo Ruca. It would normally have collected the staff, thus preventing the issue of a staff to the goods train at Neneo Ruca.
However, the account indicates that the passenger train left as the result of orders issued by the Duty Controller and thus, presumably, without the staff. It could be that some fault in the equipment prevented the issue of the staff, that this was reported to the Duty Controller who took the decision to operate the section by means of the vía libre system, and thus authorised the train to proceed.
It would be expected that he would have advised the other station that the operation of the block system was suspended, and replaced by vía libre. Clearly this did not happen, either because the Controller forgot, or he sent the train on its way before attempting to advise Neneo Ruca, either by telegraph or perhaps telephone; either way, if no one was within ear shot for an extended period, communication would fail, and Neneo Ruca would be unaware of the different operating procedure. Thus when the goods train was ready to leave Neneo Ruca a staff would be required and if one was released, the fault having resolved itself or was solely at the Comallo end, disaster would result.
However this scenario does not explain the comment “Needless deaths, the three – added Dad – since the crew of the passenger train, which was heading for Bariloche, should not have left Comallo station until the goods train from Pilcaniyeu shunted clear and was held at Neneo Ruca. But they had to obey the orders of the Duty Controller – Señor Fragoza – and they left towards the tragedy. ”
However there is a possible scenario which could explain it. The possibility is that the staff section was actually Comallo to Pilcaniyeu and that Neneo Ruca was fitted with an in-section block instrument. I don't have information at present which could confirm or negate this scenario.
An in-section block instrument was a facility within the section which would allow a train to be shunted clear of the through line and held there, thus releasing the line for other traffic. It was typically used at sidings where the shunting operations could be protracted and thus avoided preventing the though line accommodating other traffic.
The way it worked, by the train crew, not a resident signalman, was that the staff would unlock the frame controlling the points giving access to the facility; the train would be shunted clear; the restoring the points would lock in that staff; and would allow the release of another staff from one end or other of the section which would lock the frame.
When the time came for the train to leave, no other staff could be out; the locking of the frame would be released, thus allowing the points to be reversed and the train given access to the through line; on resetting the points to normal the staff could be released thus locking the points again. Until this staff was replaced at one end or other no further staffs could be issued.
This arrangement would explain the comment “should not have left Comallo station until the goods train from Pilcaniyeu shunted clear and was held at Neneo Ruca”
The events would be much the same as previously except that the goods train would have been in possession of the staff from Pilcaniyeu from a time well before the departure of the passenger train and the fault being apparent at Comallo and it would not be necessary to suggest that the fault in the system was resolved.