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A Brake Failure and 200 Victims: Remembering Vietnam's Deadliest Rail Accident

About 55 kilometers from Saigon, in the small commune of Tây Hoà rests the 17/03/1982 Railway Cemetery. It currently houses 85 unidentified graves of victims of the Train 183 Disaster, the deadliest railway accident in Vietnamese history.

March 16, 1982

It was a humid night at Nha Trang Station. Almost all of the surrounding area had sunk into a deep slumber, except for the platform housing SE6, also known as Train 183. It was about to embark on an eight-hour journey to Hồ Chí Minh City, with designated stops to accommodate additional passengers. Inside the locomotive, engineer Đậu Trường Tỏa, first mate Phạm Duy Hạnh and trainee Trần Dao Chi were finalizing their preparations, while conductors welcomed the first group of passengers onboard. Train 183 was part of the main North-South intercity railway, so the crew had expected a high volume of passengers as the route progressed. But for now, everything appeared to be in order, and 183 began to depart at 10pm.

Train 183’s route with 9 stops before arriving at Saigon Station. Map via JHNews.

Train 183 continued operating without incident until the early morning of March 17. After passing through the provinces of Ninh Thuận and Bình Thuận, Đậu Trường Tỏa was instructed by the authorities to stop at Long Khánh Station in Đồng Nai. The surprise inspection was intended to detain potential smugglers, as black market operations were rampant at the time. The inspection could also assist the crew in removing unticketed passengers, who had been on the train for the past hours. 

Free-riding had plagued intercity lines such as 183 for years, so much so that people would refer to them as tàu chợ (lit: market trains), meaning “trains without laws.” It was common knowledge that smaller, less strict stations in the countryside offered the easiest means to sneak onto trains. And in most cases, unticketed passengers would bring their entire possessions on board, even animals, in order to relocate to a larger city. As a result, by 4am, over 400 passengers including commodities, livestock and cargo of different sizes were crammed inside the 11 carriages. The suffocating stench of diesel and animal waste led some passengers to disregard safety measures by standing near open entrances, flocking to carriages for oversized goods, or even riding on the train’s roof. It was as hectic as one might imagine, but no one expected disaster to strike. 

A typical scene on tàu chợ. Photo via Văn hóa & Phát triển.

At Long Khánh Station, contraband inspectors were waiting for Train 183. However, as it approached, they soon noticed a problem. The locomotive did not appear to be slowing down; rather, it was accelerating. Before reaching Đồng Nai, Đậu Trường Toả had noticed that the train was deviating from its speed limit of 55 km/h. As he tried to apply the brakes, to his horror, he realized that they had stopped responding. This meant that either the main air compressor or the braking pipes connecting each carriage had been damaged. With no emergency braking system installed, the three engineers now faced the reality that the train was accelerating out of control. At 4:33am, the train rushed through Long Khánh Station, leaving those waiting bewildered at what just happened.

Long Khánh Station in the 2010s. Photo via Vietnam Railways.

Passengers on board had also noticed the train’s increasing speed. Although most assumed that the engineers were making up for lost time, some remained anxious as vibrations grew more intense by the hour, with overhead luggage starting to pile up in the passageways. To maintain order, the conductors announced that the train was traveling in rough terrain, and everyone must remain seated until further notice. It was unclear why the conductors were not informed of the current situation. Perhaps the engineers dreaded the resulting panic. Or perhaps with his years of experience, Đậu Trường Toả believed that he could solve the problem in time. Nevertheless, upon failing to stop at yet another station in Dầu Giây, Train 183 was traveling at a speed of over 100 km/h. 

Remnants of the old Bàu Cá Station located in today's Trảng Bom District, Đồng Nai Province. Photo via Thanh Niên.

At 5am, convinced that the engineers had lost control of the locomotive, passengers had begun to flee from 183. As most exits were blocked by mountains of luggage, some plunged themselves through the train’s roof and windows, in a last-ditch effort to survive. However, at such high speeds, all attempts proved fatal. For many passengers, especially families who were hoping to start anew in Ho Chi Minh City, their worst nightmares had become a reality. Now, they might not make it beyond Tây Hoà. As cries of terror reverberated throughout the train, some passengers decided to vent their anger upon the conductors, while others embraced their loved ones for what could be their last moment together. With the train descending further into chaos, patrolman Nguyễn Thành Sơn was pleading for 183 to drop speed. Being the last personnel present at Bàu Cá Station, he was the only one who knew that the train was fast approaching a C-shaped curve about 500 meters away. If 183 did not decelerate, derailment was inevitable. 

Unfortunately, it was all too late. After final warnings were given and received no response from the engineers, Nguyễn Thành Sơn watched helplessly as 183 veered off the railway track and crashed into a nearby field, as a massive explosion engulfed what was left of the locomotive. Đồng Nai provincial police, firefighters, and dozens of Tây Hoà volunteers arrived soon after. They were confronted with burning wreckage, horrific wailing and raging fires that consumed the day's dawn.

Map showcasing Bàu Cá station, its train track and the site of 183’s derailment (red pin).

While the injured were transported to a hospital in Saigon, authorities estimated at least 160 people had perished upon impact, with children as young as four years old found among the wreckage. Most of the crew of 183, including Đậu Trường Toả, Phạm Duy Hạnh and Trần Dao Chi, along with officials of neighboring provinces were among the casualties. A few hours later, the final death toll reached around 200 after dozens of victims succumbed to their injuries. The derailment was, by all accounts, the worst railway accident in Vietnamese history. 

Having a definitive confirmation on the death toll, authorities began attempting to identify the victims. However, problems arose. Reunification had taken place only eight years prior and the national identification system remained inadequate and almost non-existent at communal levels. Furthermore, the fire had destroyed any remaining documents needed to notify the victims' next of kin. As such, only a handful were recognized by their families through names and initials sewn onto their clothing. Up to 113 victims remained unidentified two days later. In order to clear traffic and console the grieving residents, the victims were then transferred to a plot of land 3 kilometers from the site of the derailment. Volunteers began digging temporary graves for the dead, praying that one day, the unfortunate souls would reunite with their families. 

Nameless graves in the area. The Headstone on the right reads: "These are the two gravesites where our mother is buried. If you are a family member of the other person, please contact us for more information." Photos via Pháp Luật.

Two years later, Vietnam Railways (VNR) issued a statement confirming that brake failure and inaction of the engineers were the primary causes of the derailment. The corporation also aided Đồng Nai provincial police to indict those related to the disaster. Four employees at Long Khánh Station received sentences of 15 years apiece for gross negligence, while seven smugglers received 8 years for violating railroad traffic laws. Although the charges were meant to comfort the victims’ families, many felt unsatisfied as hundreds of bodies were left stranded in Tây Hoà. In response, VNR agreed to construct tombstones as well as a fence enclosing the graves, while vowing to aid local authorities in identifying the deceased and bringing them home. However, that promise was never fulfilled, and the nameless victims remained at the Railway Cemetery for the next 30 years.

By 2014, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect. Only parts of its wooden gate remained with untamed grass and rubble obscuring most of the burial grounds. Families of the victims were shocked by the condition. Within a year, a petition was sent to VNR with four requests requiring immediate resolution: first, the retrieval of burial records to locate victim’s gravesites; second, DNA analysis for the identification of the victims who may or may not be buried together; third, low-cost renovation of the gravesites to ensure distinction; and fourth, the renovation of the cemetery’s gate and fences. Only one request was granted, which was to repair the external infrastructure of the Cemetery, while the others were denied on grounds beyond VNR’s jurisdiction. 

The main gate and inside the cemetery in disrepair in 2014. Photo via Thanh Niên.

Who exactly held authority over the Railway Cemetery had been a source of contention for years. Even during the 1990s, the People's Committee of Đồng Nai and the Department of Labour stated that the cemetery was the responsibility of VNR and the railway industry, as it was the result of a railway accident. VNR, on the other hand, was adamant that only the provincial governments could authorize the excavation, as doing so without permission was illegal. By the time the renovation was completed, both official agencies delegated responsibility for the cemetery’s upkeep and care solely to the people of Tây Hoà. Most agreed without hesitation and continued to fund the construction of a shrine at the disaster site.

The shrine built for the railway disaster. Photo via Thanh Niên.

Many who lived through the Subsidisation Era will forever remember March 17, 1982. It was a day that revealed decades of blunders and destitution in a country still recovering from the war. Yet, it was also a day that brought about changes. As Vietnam entered a period of economic growth in the early 1990s, several legislations were enacted to improve railway safety, including the mass recall of D9E engine, which had been used by Train 183, in favor of the new D19E, aptly named the ‘Đổi Mới’ locomotives. Infrastructure development also received increased funding, and the curve that caused the disaster, as well as Bàu Cá Station, were soon dismantled to give way to a new railway route. 

Maingate and within the cemetery in 2018. Photo via Thanh Niên.

Today, 85 graves are housed at the Railway Cemetery after 23 remains were reunited with their families after years apart. The main gate has been refurbished for a second time, now sporting a golden coat of paint and a plaque that describes the tragedy that once befell the small commune of Tây Hoà. Once deserted, the disaster site has been given new life via the development of a housing complex for railroad workers, inside which the shrine sits reverently at the center. Each year, residents come to the cemetery with baskets of offerings in hand to sweep and clean the gravesites of those who remain.

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