Saturday, 24 March 2012

Tales from Argentina – The Rail Crash

On Wednesday 22nd February 2012 Argentina suffered one of the most serious railway accidents in its history.

(Internet picture)
The crash at Once station, Buenos Aires, 11/02/2012
It happened at one of the major termini in Buenos Aires known as Once (full name Once de Septiembre), where trains arrive from west of the city. 51 people were crushed to death and over 700 injured when the train reached the terminus and due to brake failure was unable to stop. It hit the buffers at about 25 miles per hour, enough to concertina the first crowded four carriages, stacking one inside the other.

The trains are old and poorly maintained, windows and even doors sometimes drop off; passengers report that there are also tiles missing from the floor here and there, through which you can see the rails flashing by. None of this would have come to light if the mortality rate had not been so high and the anger of the surviving commuters so great.

For some time I have been following a blog called Relatos de una Pueblerina en la Ciudad (Stories of a Village Girl in the City), its writer Mechi being the village girl of the title. She lives in Moreno, 45 km/28 miles west of the capital and works in downtown Buenos Aires at a job she loves, in the quality control of computer games. She’s a regular weekday commuter, and was on the ill-fated train.

Mechi is a witty and sharp observer of the eccentricities of her fellow daily commuters, but I’ve always been keenly aware of the discomfort she is forced to endure in this daily routine.

There aren’t enough trains or buses to accommodate the number of commuters needing to get to work in the capital and every weekday morning she arrives at her local station (which is the end - or the beginning - of the line) fretting about whether she will be able to get on the train without having her hair pulled, her ankles kicked, her clothes torn, her feet crushed or her eyes stabbed by elbows and bags.

She anxiously checks the electronic timetable when she arrives on the platform, noticing the services which have been cancelled without explanation yet again and tensely awaits the eventual arrival of the next train. She frequently finds herself in tears as she desperately tries to outwit the crowds so that she can get to work on time and in such a way as to find somewhere to sit, to enable her to recover her dignity and relax before the next stage of her journey to the office.

She and her fellow travellers use careful judgment and sheer cunning to try to get a seat, as the journey takes over an hour; she has remarked in wonder that once the frantic struggle to get one’s own space on the train has been negotiated, people switch from vicious to kindly in an instant as they invariably laugh with relief and behave as if it had never happened.

She attempts to shut out the loud chatter and the ever present stench of urine by listening to music on her iPod, or if she’s been able to get a seat, by dozing. After alighting from the train she catches a bus for the last hour of the journey into town.

Such is the overcrowding that many seats are taken even before it arrives at this last station on the line, for commuters who live several stations nearer the city will board the train in the wrong direction and therefore add 15 minutes to their journey - just to ensure they get a seat.

There is fear too. Even if larger and more aggressive travellers have been skilfully avoided, there is the problem of the state of the train itself. She tries to avoid choosing the carriages which have tiles in the floor missing; it gives her nausea to see the rails racing by underneath. The doors don’t always work properly, however when commuters complained to the company – TBA (Trenes de Buenos Aires) that people smoking on crowded trains made the journey intolerable, they responded in an unexpected manner by knocking out the windows of the carriage allocated to smokers “so that the smoke could escape”. Commuters didn’t know whether to be surprised because of their choice of solution to the problem or because they had bothered to respond at all.

On the morning of 22nd February Mechi felt stressed even before the train pulled into Moreno station. Making split second decisions she ran past the first carriage, which she knew would fill up to unbearable levels with last minute arrivals; she carried on past the second because it was the smokers’ compartment, and after a brief hesitation sped past the third because she assessed that she would still smell the smoke. Her decision to board the fourth carriage and her success in finding a seat probably saved her life.

The journey was uneventful – or at least it was by her standards. The carriage was packed and someone who got on several stations down the line had even opted for the uncomfortable tiny enclosed cabin at the end which had a sign on it forbidding its use – perhaps because it was used for storage. But even that was better than being crammed between so many bodies. Mechi was in a double seat facing two other seats - but sometimes the crowding was such that people would stand in the tiny space generally occupied by the four pairs of feet.

As the carriages ahead rounded bends she could see through the window sparks flying from the wheels; at various stations the driver didn’t stop properly so that all exiting passengers could alight onto a platform, and at one point a plastic cover on the door mechanism of her carriage sprang loose and passengers who were pressed against the door had to help keep it pinned back so that the sharp edges didn’t injure both them and the people getting in and out. But, as she said later, this was not unusual.

As they pulled into the terminus at Once, early morning rush hour was at its height and in the densely packed carriages people were gathering up their belongings. Books and iPods were stowed away, women tidied their hair and rucksacks were zipped up. The lucky ones who had managed to get a seat had stood up to stretch their legs and prepare themselves for the exit scrum.

The train had slowed and suddenly braked very sharply. Sleepy expressions turned to terror and Mechi heard the sound of hundreds of people screaming as they were knocked off their feet. Then there was a muffled crunching sound as the train hit the buffers and passengers were flung through the air to the front of the carriage. She herself was thrown on top of the young woman who had been seated facing her, and her first concern was to help her to her feet and ensure she was alright. She had been protected from further injury by the row of seats in front of her.

There were sprawling passengers tightly packed several high in the gangways, and some were bleeding. She found it impossible to extricate them, though she was able to help one girl who had hurt her leg and as they sat her down she continued to cry hysterically. Mechi could see that there was nothing further she could do without expert help and decided to exit the carriage where more horrors awaited her as she picked her way dazedly past heavily injured people who had been pulled out and onto the platform.

(Internet picture)
The crash at Once station, Buenos Aires, 11/02/2012
Even in shock she observed that the third carriage was deep inside the second, and the second deep inside the first, with the sides looking like so much torn cardboard. The buffers were half way into the first carriage. People were screaming insults at the driver – who survived relatively unscathed – and tried unsuccessfully to get to him.

Whilst Mechi kept repeating to herself over and over that it was her loathing of cigarettes that had made her choose the fourth carriage, a man at the exit, looking white and drawn, told anyone who would listen that he had been in the train behind because he had missed this, his usual one, and he always travelled in the first carriage...

Trembling, she boarded her bus to go to work, and when she got there she did the only thing that could comfort her at that point. She sat down and wrote it all out in her blog. It wasn’t till she got home later that she learned the true extent of the crash, and about the number of victims, and just how lucky she had been.

Over the next few days her blogger friends were prompt to offer comfort, as the emergency services commented on what they had seen, and the fact that oil had had to be used to prise apart the tightly jammed dead victims. There were angry protests, grieving families, and desperate people looking for their relatives not knowing whether to search in hospitals or mortuaries. Fifty deaths were reported, with many of these unnamed and unaccounted for.

The driver said his brakes had failed, but that had been happening for some time and no maintenance had been carried out. On the journey that morning they had failed at an earlier station, but when he reported it he had been told to carry on. It was later revealed that this shocking instruction had been given based on past experience: if they had accepted the issue as a maintenance problem the train would have had to be emptied of passengers; hundreds of angry people thwarted from getting to their destinations for many hours. On a previous occasion they had turned on the staff in a very ugly scene and the trains were set alight. TBA wanted to avoid a repetition of this incident, which had been extensively reported in the media.

Accusations flew back and forth at high level within TBA and the government; finally the president herself gave few opinions on the subject, and always during speeches where other subjects were also being covered. She grieved for the dead and their families, she said, we will find the culprits and they will be punished accordingly. Yes, she continued, there had been a lack of investment in the railways, but this was because previous governments from the seventies had left her with a high level of debt. She was careful to define exactly to which administration she referred, since the last one had been her own (she is on a second term) and in the two before that her own husband had been president. Some days after that she sacked the transport minister.

Meanwhile the parents of a young man called Lucas Menghini still desperately searched for their 20 year old son, who had been observed on closed circuit television entering the train that morning, and begged the emergency services to search again. Three days later it was announced that the body count had gone from 50 to 51. His body had been found in the fourth carriage, where Mechi had travelled. Lucas had sought to make the journey a little easier on himself by taking refuge in the little cabin with the sign on it forbidding passenger access. When the train crashed it became a death trap, and he was only identified by the contents of his rucksack.

In Mechi a terrible anger was growing at the pointlessness of the deaths, the inaction by the authorities and most of all against TBA and its treatment of its customers. She remembered over her two years of commuting how frequently the staff had treated them like cattle, herding them in and out of trains with shouts and insults, how complaints were either ignored or treated with contempt.

She sat down and wrote an open letter on her blog to TBA explaining why, despite her upbringing when she had been taught never to hate anybody; she hated TBA with body and soul. If you treat people like animals, they become brutalised; she didn’t blame the daily commuters for behaving as they did, she said, she blamed TBA for not only disregarding its customers, but for actively pursuing a policy of put-up-and-shut-up. “You have turned us into psychotics”, she claimed.

Her letter struck a chord in many people, who copied and pasted it onto their Facebook page, and before she knew where she was she had turned into a minor celebrity, with thousands of hits on her blog and many dozens of comments championing her reaction. She was contacted by television channels, radio stations and newspapers, all wanting to interview her and quote her blog. Bewildered by all the unexpected attention, she responded to everybody as best she could, and her obvious inexperience and fresh approach multiplied the effect.

Aside from making scores of new virtual friends who are helping her overcome the shock and horror of what she went through, her anger has achieved what politicians would give their right arm for – attention at the highest level.

In the short-term things have got worse.  Taking fright, TBA have removed all trains from service judged to be substandard and replaced them with a reduced bus service and a special train service at double the cost of a ticket.  This does not even begin to cope with the vast numbers of people travelling to work, and the trains that do work are having to leave doors and windows open so that the more intrepid can travel by holding on to the outside while securing a foothold inside the carriage.  Facing seats now always have rows of people standing between them.  Police guard the platforms to break up scuffles.

Whereas before the crash passengers were travelling a couple of stations in the wrong direction to enable them to have a seat on the 'return' journey to Once, people who would have been boarding the train several stations further still along the line on the way to the city are now choosing to go in the opposite direction for half their journey rather than risk queuing for an hour to get an overcrowded bus.  The president has made no further comments.

It now remains to be seen whether anything is done. All that is reported in the newspapers is the update of negotiations on which government department will take on the responsibility for the railways above and below ground.  Nothing is yet known about what exactly caused the accident and enormous loss of life.

One month on and at 8.32 on the morning of Thursday 22nd March passengers alighting from the same service at Once station showed they had not forgotten - as the thousands of people descended from the train wave upon wave of clapping echoed through the huge terminus.  It was a clear message to TBA "We won't forget, and you won't either".  Meanwhile in Buenos Aires itself and other cities in Argentina by prearranged signal motorists sat on their horns at 8.32 for several minutes.  In her office at the Casa Rosada, if the president missed the clapping she most certainly will have been unable to ignore that cacophony.

Internet pic, 8.32 a.m. one month from the accident.
TBA's unpopularity has spread and - at last - it has been reported that the investigations are to include the recently discovered 800 odd formal complaints submitted to TBA between 2006 and 2009 which were ignored by the company.

On a lighter note, one of the many individual stories was of a man whose brand new shoes saved his life - on that morning in February he had realised that he would be too uncomfortable standing in a crowded train until the shoes had been worn in an little, not to mention the upset he would feel if anybody trod on his gorgeous new purchase, and opted for a later train after the rush hour so that he could sit down.  How many times in our lives have we unknowingly saved our skins by such trivial decisions?

Mechi has taken remedial action in her own life so as not to be at the mercy of old and malfunctioning trains any longer and is moving away from the family home in the village of Moreno to share a flat in town, a short bus ride away from her job.

Internet pic
Note added on 28th March 2012 - a correction:  Mechi has commented today that although she has moved, she is still in the village of Moreno, as the home she and her boyfriend have been building (themselves) is now finished.  Her move is therefore unrelated to the accident, and her commuting difficulties are set to continue for now.  She is both brave and resourceful, and I wish her the very best.

Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

From a garden, and a rugby game,
plus some clouds at the end for Penny at Snap That

I liked the photographer craning for a shot on the left
with the shouting man behind him,
and the two men top right watching the kicker,
as a frame for the picture.

Trying my hand at panning...

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

Portishead, North Somerset

Portishead, North Somerset



Reddirt Woman said...

Ah, Caroline... how many times have we read or heard of such horrendous events like this horrible crash before anything is done to make things safer for people that are only trying to make a living and support their families. What a tragedy as well as a travesty. One must pray for the survivors and all those who lost loved ones. Hopefully no one will forget this and keep holding the TBA and the government's feet to the fire.

Hopefully Mechi and all the others who survived and were witness to the carnage can find some way to heal and to turn this into a mission to try to prevent accidents such as this from ever happening again.

Thank you for sharing this story with us, Lonicera, reminding us to be thankful for all we do have in this world.

Zanna said...

Oh Caroline what a horrendous story - but you told it with such feeling and empathy. And how brave of Mechi - one voice making a difference. Thank you for sharing Love Zanna xx

OneStonedCrow said...

OMGoodness Caroline - what a horror story ... not only the accident itself, but also the way in which people suffer just to get to work ... I'm sure this is the state of affairs in many countries ...

love the images - my fave is the Rugby player kicking the ball ... brilliant!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Helen - at the moment no one at the top is learning from it, they're too busy blaming each other, but with the commuters making enough noise perhaps something will happen - eventually.

Lonicera said...

Hey Zanna - lovely to hear from you again. I've asked Mechi on her blog if she minds my telling it, or if any part of it is incorrect... I hope she'll be OK with it.

Lonicera said...

Hi Graham - I know, I've found myself thinking frequently about what it would be like for me to be in her place. I whinge regularly about my parking problems, but this sort of situation really puts it in perspective. Glad you like the rubgy pic...........cos I've got thousands waiting in the wings to be sorted for scanning or discarded forever! Don't want to be boring.

Simone said...

An unbelievable story Caroline, people risking their lives simply to get to work, absolutely horrendous. No one should have to endure this - as for those who died, I almost have no words, those poor poor people.

Good for Mechi for telling her story - and well done you for passing it on XX

Simone said...

PS I came over to tell you - and nearly forgot! - that you won my Tempur pillow giveaway :)

If you want to email your address to me, then I will arrange for Furniture Village to send it to you :)

My email is sla212 at

Simone XX

Lonicera said...

Thanks Simone - I do hope Mechi reads these messages.
And wow - I'm quite overwhelmed to have won that pillow, can't wait to see it! I've e-mailed you as requested, and thank you very much!

Mechicabota said...

It moved me. I know it's my story, but reading it written by somebody else (and in English!) it's weird.
Thanks for the comments, everybody =)

Sadly, I didn't move to Buenos Aires City. I still live in Moreno. For the last 1 and 1/2 year we've been building a house with my boyfriend (yes, US! We didn't hire anyone to do it ^^) and we just finished it and moved there.

Lately I've been dealing with depression (it's part of the post-traumatic stress disorder, I guess) and I'm currently in therapy.
"Gajes del oficio", right? =)

Lonicera said...

Mechi - thank you so much for your comment! I was concerned in case anything I said offended you or made you feel worse. I guessed that your blog silence is because you've got too many things to deal with. I didn't know you were building a house (yourselves! I'm very impessed!), I thought your moving was directly related to the accident, and it made sense that you should seek to avoid using that train service. I so hope the journey gets better for you.

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