On that December morning, the thick fog was interposed like an invisible and homicidal steel wall between the Ligerillo train covering the Fuentes de Oñoro-Medina del Campo route and the Sudexpreso Paris-Salamanca-Lisbon; the latter was four hours late. In the capital, a double tractor unit was added to make up for those 240 minutes of delay that took us to hell.
At the Villar de los Álamos station, Ómbibus 1802 positioned itself to give way to the Sudexpreso. The driver of the first locomotive did not see the red signal. It was just after ten o'clock in the morning. The crash opened the seams of the Apocalypse. Officially, 31 people were killed and dozens injured. According to scholars, the real number is closer to half a hundred. The news was not reported in the Parte de RNE, but in the Adelanto de Salamanca the day after.
The solidarity of the whole region was mobilised to save lives; Red Cross, fire brigade, medical staff from the recently opened Virgen de la Vega Hospital and the Provincial Hospital received dozens of injured people. The people of Salamanca flocked to donate blood. Guardia Civil and Police signed the most supportive pages of that human tragedy. The Sudexpreso was, in essence, a train of emigrants returning from Europe to spend Christmas in Portugal. They were returning home.
The wounded were seen off after their recovery by the Tuna de Derecho and by a multitude of Salamancans who had experienced that biblical curse as their own.
It was a year and another year, five years and ten more until Paco Cañamero, our Benito Pérez Galdós charro, began to reconstruct an almost forgotten story. Cañamero is an all-terrain writer who had already brought out of oblivion the other great railway tragedy of Muñoz (21 December 1978) with 26 children killed after a train ran over a school bus at a level crossing without barriers. The accident left entire municipalities such as San Muñoz, La Sagrada, Muñoz and Ardonsillero orphaned forever.
The Villar de los Álamos disaster happened thirteen years earlier. Cañamero, with his accumulated experience, weaves a documentary story that reads like a novel of action and emotions.
Fado entre Encinas (Kadmos, Salamanca, 2022) is a novelistic story where the passion for telling the truth ennobles the Spanish and Portuguese tragedy. Paco, moreover, is in love with Portugal. We leave it there for the reader to discover the razor's edge that separates fiction from reality.
The work, now in its second edition, acquires a sociological dimension that pushes the author to seek to transform the memory into stone, granite stone of the land itself. The monolith is simple and simply aims to revive the solidarity born between two peoples who today have no borders, thanks to our membership of the EU since 1986. We have passed a subject that has been pending for eleven long years.
Twenty-one thousand days after that unfortunate 18 December '65, fifty-five hundred of us met at the same place of the accident. A spring sun avenged that demonic fog. Paco Cañamero presented the tribute, explaining that it was an act of justice for all those who lost their lives, for those who were injured and for those who made sure that the tragedy did not spread to the very edge of the abyss.
His Portuguese passion spoke of pride - not in his work hot off the press (his 32nd book) - but in the solidarity and professional work of hundreds of people who gave their all to save the lives of their fellow human beings.
Norberto Redondo, president of the Asociación de Amigos del Ferrocarril offered technical details of the accident, three train drivers and a stoker dead. And another stoker was saved because he was smoking and was thrown out. Miracles still exist.
In front of the directors of ADIF and Renfe in CyL and Salamanca, Gabriel Cruz, from a long line of railwaymen in the area, recited this beautiful poem written for the occasion and entitled " Synesthesia and pain".
"Silence can still be heard...and a lament,
shadows blurred in the firmament,
cries that grip the thought...
those heartbroken cries, in here.
The questions come, then the words
but they are drowned in dry throats
nothing is heard but hollow voices.
How much pain in that macabre look!
The hugs and kisses broke;
those eyes broken like glass
the souls stripped of their freedom.
Only the persistence of time will incapacitate an accidental oblivion,
from our hearts... to eternity."
And from one poet to another. Julián Martín Martín is a friend of the school. So anything I say in his favour could be used against me. Cañamero has compared him to "the Gabriel y Galán" of our time. With nine books published and on the street, I, who know his work, put it in line with that of Hernández, Miguel Hernández, the one from Orihuela. Julián is a poet of the people who, furrow by furrow and verse by verse, moves us. He is like a bolero: he always enchants. The poet from Aldehuela de la Bóveda - his village and mine - includes in Fado entre Encinas a beautiful collection of one hundred verses on the tragedy of El Villar. I summarise.
In the shadow of memory, he draws this portrait:
"My people poured out
routines from the street and the church, waiting for Christmas to come".
"The morning was covered in fog
Suddenly through the mist
unfamiliar noises carrying fears
sounds of bells, alerting that something was happening.
In El Villar two trains have collided
It was a tragedy".
"The balance was suddenly broken.
Livid with terror, panic-stricken, but ready to help.
but ready to help
they searched for the injured.
They did not try to speak to him
that language was superfluous,
in those moments of impatience, because in the end, we are all of us,
of the same language when the soul suffers".
"The wind saw the bewilderment
lying on the tracks; hands to the empty world
eyes to the world covered.
They look anxious and uncertain
without seeing the light or the shadow,
only the one who names is heard
amidst the mournful moaning
to that being who does not answer,
searching where, where, where
is the beloved relative.
It is not possible to find
a moment of calm
that time seems blind
in the Villar station".
(Carrascal del Obispo, spring 2020, in memory of the winter of 1965. Julián Martín).
The Portuguese ambassador to Spain, Joao Mira Gómes, speaks a correct Spanish. No accent. He is an approachable man who, as soon as he arrived at the meeting point between yesterday and tomorrow, greeted all those gathered. He made two reflections aloud. "It is a great honour to be here to pay tribute to the victims of that accident and to the people who helped the injured and their families. This is a simple act, yes, but an important one. There is no place more important than this for us. We are two neighbouring towns, friends and brothers. We live then and now privileged relations; and the new AVE will unite us much more in the future. I just want to add two words: Thank you. Obliged. And a request: I ask you for a minute's silence for all those affected and for their families. Our solidarity remains intact. (Minute of silence with a sun blessing respect and Portuguese and Spanish unity).
The sub-delegate of the government in Salamanca, Encarnación Pérez, knew the book Fado entre Encinas well and enjoyed this meeting between two border towns.
She acknowledged that some Portuguese blood runs through her veins. She praised the solidarity of the men who made it possible for the tragedy to be alleviated through solidarity and had an emotional memory for the Guardia Civil, the National Police, the Red Cross, the health personnel, for RENFE and Adif and was especially sensitive to see how one of the main protagonists of that sad and interminable Saturday was moved: Julián Moro. He was the coordinator of the entire rescue operation.
The authorities especially thanked the mayor of Robliza, Manuel Rivas, and the deputy mayor of Aldehuela de la Bóveda, in the absence of José Manuel Moñita due to personal problems.
The inhabitants of these two villages, the closest to El Villar, were the first to come to the aid of the victims. With this monolith, with this tribute to the past, we settle an account and open a window looking out to the Atlantic. The future belongs to us. It is never too late if the intention is good. Fado entre Encinas reconciles us, above all, with ourselves. An hour of reunion between Spanish and Portuguese friends. Half a hundred citizens chained to memory, faith and hope. The almond trees are already in blossom. Perhaps spring is coming early.
I was there that morning in December 1975. I was seventeen years old and had an uncertain future with only one certainty: I had to leave the village because, although I was the son of a farmer, I never had the guts to plough the land. "I want to be a journalist", I repeated loudly every time I woke up. It took me eleven years to achieve my dream. And that Saturday, December 18th, I had my first nightmare.
Fifty-seven years and thirty-four days later, I can still clearly hear that thunderous sound. I jumped out of bed. I went out the door. Several civil guards from the command post stopped the DKW of a shopkeeper from Carrascal del Obispo and sped past. Another couple was on a bicycle and I asked them what had happened. "There has been a train accident in El Villar; we don't know any more," replied one of the officers. I took my father's bicycle and no sooner had I passed the silo, the largest building in Aldehuela, than a huge curtain of black smoke rose into the sky through the thick fog. Ten minutes later I arrived at the heart of the tragedy.
The two train engines were embedded. The boiling water boiler on the Salamanca-bound train had exploded so violently that the dead seemed to have been bathed in tar.
The stoker of the Sudexpreso bound for Lisbon was wandering among the corpses - ten or twelve I counted at first - as he wondered tearfully what had happened, answering aloud: My God, my God, what happened? The spectacle was Dantesque. As if we had reached the end of the world.
My friend Julián Moro, a cadet at the Guardia Civil academy in Valdemoro, who was on holiday, led the rescue operation with the fortitude of a commander-in-chief. He asked me not to go near the "ground zero" where the bodies had accumulated, while several injured people, like ghosts, called for help from inside the carriages.
It was easy to tell from their accents that they were Portuguese, emigrants who had come to spend Christmas with their families from France, Switzerland and Germany. How sad is fado!
Some private cars arrived, diverted by the Guardia Civil from the N-620 road about 150 metres from the small station of Villar de los Álamos.
In the face of the bewilderment, fear and improvisation, only the officers remained calm; they put three or four injured people in each car to the astonishment of the drivers and asked them to transfer them urgently to the hospitals of Salamanca. Meanwhile, the pile of corpses grew hour by hour. The first ambulances and fire engines arrived.
As I tried to separate the engines, I could see the mutilated body of the driver's assistant. That image haunted me for months, along with the two rows of blackened corpses that numbered at least twenty.
Smoke rose steadily to the skies as the fog gradually disappeared. The survivors from both trains were frightened. Some were running cross-country, weeping and praying incessantly, anointed by the blackish coal vapour.
A couple of doctors were helping the wounded. One was the head doctor of Calzada de Don Diego, Don Alfonso Domínguez, and the other was the then student of Medicine, José Prieto, now a professor and a world authority in Biology.
Blood was splattered on the platform, foreshadowing the anteroom to hell. The experiences of that day - I remained at the scene of the events for about seven hours - drilled into my brain for weeks. I could neither sleep nor cry.
That railway and human catastrophe changed our lives. I remember that the day after was Sunday. Don Celestino celebrated a mass of thanksgiving, because the only passenger from the village, Mrs. Hortensia, had appeared hours later in the Campo del Hospicio, two kilometres away from the place of the accident. How could an old person get there? Miracles do exist. In the aftermath of accidents, faith always rekindles.
All tragedies make us better because we learn from them that all the pain in the world belongs to us when we have violently visited the other side of life.
Most of those RENFE passengers never reached their destination. Today Paco Cañamero rescues us all, the living and the dead, from oblivion.
Fado entre Encinas is a road of no return between two brother towns stranded on a dead track that no longer leads anywhere. Now the AVE of the future will pass too close and too fast to this simple monolith that immortalises a painful event in our history.
Allow me to end this summary of the epilogue to the book I wrote, emulating some verses by Pedro Casaldáliga, the Spanish bishop and friend of the disinherited of fortune in Central America. "It is late", the poet writes, "but it is our time; this monument of painful granite is all we have left to rebuild the future. It is late, but it is us. It is late, but it is still noon if we insist a little".
Fado among holm oaks cannot bring the victims back to life, but this monolith should heal, in part, the wounds of so much lost time and silences. No one will die completely as long as we remember him.
Beyond the love and dislike of this accident due to fog and fatality, it allows the recovery of a collective tragedy that still reverberates in our hearts.
This open-air tribute confirms that we have never lost our way home. Thank you, Paco, colleague and yet friend, for admitting me as a direct witness and for being here again - in the same place and at the same time - half a century after that interminably cold December morning. To live to tell the tale; that is our mission.
After the speeches - in reality a continuous prayer for the absent - the Portuguese poet and singer-songwriter Joaquim Dias performed a sublime fado, tremendously sad and hopeful; it was actually an epistle by Rosalía de Castro to the emigrants. After all, most of the travellers were emigrants who came laden with gifts for Christmas Eve. Today emigration (even internal emigration) is as hard as it was then. I would say more: today we are all emigrants. Those who left and those who came to see their families had the same dream: to achieve a better life for all their families. The same dreams as always.
The ceremony closed with the red cloth slipping gently over the granite pedestal. The Portuguese ambassador and the sub-delegate of the government in Salamanca invited the key man who led the rescue operation that morning in December, Julián Moro, then a cadet at the Civil Guard Academy in Valdemoro (Madrid), to draw back the imaginary veil. The real hero of the day. The message of the past and the future was unveiled at that moment:
-It's been a long time, I remember Julian, my childhood friend. 57 years and 38 days! A lifetime.
-Disenchant yourself, my friend: we've passed.
The simplicity of Ambassador Joao Mira Gomes, who arrived and left driving the diplomatic car - "I am the ambassador's driver, he joked-; the closeness of the sub-delegate of the Government in Salamanca, Encarnación Pérez Álvarez, who promoted this monolith-homage after reading the book "Fado entre Encinas" created an atmosphere of friendship and solidarity between our peoples and our people, which recalled, in a way, that farewell of the Salamanca law students to the survivors of that railway accident. Oh, Portugal, why do I love you so much? Oh, Portugal, why is it, why is it!
On that 18th December, the fog caused the tragedy. All the pain invaded us between the twisted rails. Blood spilled too much on the tracks of two trains that never reached their destination. Today the midday sun - 17ºC - celebrated with us this tribute to the victims, their families and the solidarity of two neighbouring, friendly, brotherly and bordering peoples. This monolith will forever remind us that union and life are stronger than pain and death. Communication (by rail) is the strongest link for our shared future. The AVE is knocking at the door. Let us open it wide. Spain and Portugal, united by pain. And by hope.
Antonio REGALADO, journalist, directs BAHÍA DE ÍTACA in. aregaladorodriguez.blogspot.com