Driver in Spain train crash held for `reckless homicide`

Last Updated: Sunday, July 28, 2013 - 10:44

Santiago de Compostela: The driver of a train that hurtled off the rails killing 78 people in Spain faced possible charges of "reckless homicide" as police on Saturday identified the last three victims of the country`s worst rail disaster in decades.

As Spain mourned, the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela where the crash occurred prepared a memorial service for the victims Monday in its cathedral, a destination for Catholic pilgrims from around the world.

Police detained the driver of the train -- who reportedly boasted of his love for speed online -- on Thursday "for the alleged crimes of reckless homicide", Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz told reporters Saturday during a visit to the city.

The driver, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, 52, refused to answer police questions Friday from his hospital bed and the case was passed to the courts.

He was taken to a police station on Saturday after being discharged from hospital and will appear before a judge on Sunday who will decide whether to press formal charges, the interior minister said.

"There are reasonable grounds to consider that he may have been responsible for what happened, which must be established by a judge and the investigation which has been opened," Fernandez Diaz said.

Under Spanish law, a suspect can be detained for a maximum of 72 hours before being heard by a judge.
The train was said to have been travelling at more than twice the speed limit on a curve when it hurtled off the rails on Wednesday and slammed into a concrete wall, with one carriage leaping up onto a siding.

Smoke billowed from the gutted cars as bodies were strewn across the tracks about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the station at Santiago de Compostela. Locals said they came running from their houses to drag passengers from the wreckage.

Spanish media published photographs of the man they identified as Garzon Amo after the crash, with blood covering the right side of his face.

The driver should have started slowing the train before reaching a bend that train drivers had been told to respect, the president of Spanish rail network administrator Adif said.

"Four kilometres before the accident happened he already had warnings that he had to begin slowing his speed," Gonzalo Ferre told Spanish public television TVE.

Daily newspaper El Mundo, citing sources close to the investigation, reported Saturday that the driver was speaking on his mobile telephone at the time of the accident.

Seventy-eight passengers died and 178 were injured in the accident, regional authorities said.

Forensics police on Saturday identified the three victims who had not yet been identified.

Eight foreigners were among the dead -- a US citizen, an Algerian, a Mexican, a Brazilian, a Venezuelan, an Italian, a national of the Dominican Republic and a French man.

Seventy-one people remained in hospital, including 28 adults and three children who were in critical condition, regional health authorities said.

Many of the passengers were said to be on their way to a festival in honour of Saint James, the apostle who gave his name to Santiago de Compostela.

On Saturday, families of the victims started finally to retrieve the luggage of their relatives.

Grim-faced they left, in silence, a sports hall where the baggage had been stored.

"This is terrible, terrible. Thank you God, my sister is alive, but I spent seven terrible hours waiting," said one woman, aged 50.

The driver, while still trapped in his cab, told railway officials by radio that the train had taken the curve at 190 kilometres (118 miles) an hour, more than double the 80 kph speed limit on that section of track, El Pais said, citing unidentified sources in the investigation.

"I was going at 190! I hope no one died because it will weigh on my conscience," he was quoted as saying.

State railway company Renfe said the driver had been with the firm for 30 years, including 13 years as a driver.

He had driven trains past the spot of the accident 60 times during his time with Renfe, company president Julio Gomez-Pomar told private television Antena 3.

"That is to say, the knowledge that he has to have of this track is exhaustive," he said.
Media reports described Garzon Amo as a speed freak who once posted a picture on his Facebook page of a train speedometer at 200 kph.

A caption read: "I am on the edge, I can`t go faster or else I will be fined."

The page has since been taken down.

But Garzon Amo also has his defenders.

"He is an excellent professional. It is the first accident he has ever had," said Antonio Rodriguez, who joined Renfe alongside Garzon in 1982.

Renfe said the train -- a model able to adapt between high-speed and normal tracks -- had no technical problems and had just passed an inspection on the morning of the accident.

Experts have raised questions about the track`s speed signalling system.

Since high-speed trains use the route, it has been equipped with an automatic speed control system known as the European Rail Traffic Management System, under which a train`s brakes can be automatically applied if speeding.

But the secretary general of Spain`s train drivers` union, Juan Jesus Garcia Fraile, told public radio that the system was not in place at the crash site.

It was Spain`s deadliest rail accident since 1944 when hundreds were killed in a train collision, also between Madrid and Galicia. In 1972, 77 people died when a train derailed between Cadiz and Seville.

"It gives you the shivers to think of everything that people experienced here that terrible night," said local resident Celia Rosende as she looked at the damaged carriages still lying on the rails.

Reuters



First Published: Sunday, July 28, 2013 - 10:44

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