Q COSTA RICA – The tragedy that occurred on March 14, 1926 is still remembered by descendents of the victims, historians and the public. A train carrying an overload of passengers, mostly from Alajuela, on an excursion to Cartago, teetered while crossing the bridge over the Virilla river tipping the cars which then fell 70 meters into the river.
A new book by historian Filipe Ovares Barquero recreates the scene with names of victims and survivors as well as reports from the ninety year old scene and the investigation that followed. The trainload of passengers was heading for Cartago to a festival sponsored by the church, the fare was reasonable and the weather was pure summer, and Cartago is the home of La Negrita, Costa Rica’s patron saint.
Whole families signed up to go.
The train, with six cars, had a capacity for three hundred but over 1,000 people climbed aboard.
They were hanging out the windows, which were open, and standing on the balconies at the back of the cars. The aisles were crammed with humanity as the train chugged out of Alajuela at 7:30 that morning. There wasn’t room for another soul, even though at stations along the way in Rio Segundo, Santo Domingo and other towns, crowds were waiting, tickets in hand.
The engineer, realizing that the train was filled, planned to pass San Juaquin de Flores without stopping but the waiting crowd moved onto the tracks to forced it to stop. Nobody wanted to miss the fun.
Coming up to the metal bridge over the Virilla river is a slight curve. Under normal conditions it was a matter of slowing down for the bridge, then speeding up for the slight hill after the bridge. But this train was hauling extra cars and an overload of passengers.
The engine and the first three cars made it smoothly onto the bridge. The fourth car tipped just enough to catch on the metal struts of the bridge structure, but passengers fell out of open windows or jumped to their deaths.
The next two cars went over completely, killing and maiming all aboard. A few people survived, two small children among them, with no family left to claim them. The accident occurred at 8:20 that morning, less than an hour after getting under way.
Help arrived immediately from towns along the way and police and the army (yes, there was an army then). Many of the bodies were in pieces. Most were left unidentified because the whole family died in the accident. Bodies were hauled by oxcart to the hospital in Alajuela along with metal barrels filled with body parts. Not one family in Alajuela was spared the loss of someone.
This was 1926. The population of Costa Rica was 532,259 and Alajuela claimed 32,142.
This was an emergency. Able bodied men who were left in the city were asked to come to the hospital, with shovels, to help dig a mass grave. A massive grave. Somewhere in the city’s cemetery. The site itself is unmarked but the government of Spain, which kept an interest in her former lands, paid for a monument to remember and honor the innocent faithful who boarded that train to attend a religious event.
Felipe Ovares Barquero’s book, Tragedia en el Virilla is sold through UNED (Universidad Estatal a la Distancia) bookstores, at c10,000. It includes photos, one of the two orphaned children, which appeared in a newspaper at the time to try to find a family for them.
Although many years have passed since March 14, 1926, it is still a date remembered in Costa Rica.