Spain train crash probe centres on speed, toll 80
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Last Updated: Friday, July 26, 2013, 09:15
  
Zee Media Bureau

Madrid: Two days after Spain suffered its deadliest rail disaster in decades - which killed 80 people and maimed scores of others - one question surpassed all others -Why was the train moving so fast?

The derailment sent pieces of the sleek train plowing across the ground in a ghastly jumble of smashed metal, dirt and smoke.

Investigators opened a probe on Thursday into possible failings by the 52-year-old driver and the train's in-built speed-regulation systems.

Experts said one, or both, must be at fault for the disastrous Wednesday night crash of the train that was carrying 218 passengers and five crew members to Santiago de Compostela, a destination of Catholic pilgrimage preparing to celebrate its most revered saint.

Police has taken the driver of a Spanish train into custody in hospital after at least 80 people died when it derailed and caught fire in a dramatic accident which an official source said was caused by excessive speed.

The eight-carriage high velocity train came off the tracks just outside the pilgrimage centre of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on Wednesday night. It was one of Europe's worst rail disasters.

The source had knowledge of the official investigation into a crash which brought misery to Santiago on Thursday, the day when it should have celebrated one of Europe's biggest Christian festivals. Authorities cancelled festivities as the city went into mourning.

The Galicia region supreme court said in a statement that the judge investigating the accident had ordered police to put the driver in custody and take a statement from him. He was under formal investigation, the court said.

Dramatic video footage from a security camera showed the train, with 247 people on board, hurtling into a concrete wall at the side of the track as carriages jack-knifed and the engine overturned.

One local official described the aftermath of the crash as like a scene from hell, with bodies strewn next to the tracks.

The impact was so huge one carriage flew several metres into the air and landed on the other side of the high concrete barrier.

Some 94 people were injured, of whom 35 were in a serious condition, including four children, the deputy head of the regional government said.

"We heard a massive noise and we went down the tracks. I helped get a few injured and bodies out of the train. I went into one of the cars but I'd rather not tell you what I saw there," Ricardo Martinez, a 47-year old baker from Santiago de Compostela, said.

The train had two drivers, the Galicia government said, but it was not immediately clear which one was in hospital and under investigation.

Newspaper accounts cited witnesses as saying one driver, Francisco Jose Garzon, who had helped rescue victims, shouted into a phone: "I've derailed! What do I do?".

The 52-year-old had been a train driver for 30 years, a Renfe spokeswoman said. Many newspapers published excerpts from his Facebook account where he was reported to have boasted of driving trains at high speed. The page was taken offline on Thursday and the reports could not be verified.

El Pais newspaper said one of the drivers told the railway station by radio after being trapped in his cabin that the train entered the bend at 190 kilometres per hour (120 mph). An official source said the speed limit on that stretch of twin track, laid in 2011, was 80 kph.

"We're only human! We're only human!" the driver told the station, the newspaper said, citing sources close to the investigation. "I hope there are no dead, because this will fall on my conscience."

Investigators were trying to urgently establish why the train was going so fast and why security devices to keep speed within permitted limits had not worked.

The train, operated by state-owned company Renfe, was built by Bombardier and Talgo and was around five years old. It had almost the maximum number of passengers.

Spain's rail safety record is better than the European average, ranking 18th out of 27 countries in terms of railway deaths per kilometres travelled, the European Railway Agency said. There were 218 train accidents in Spain between 2008-2011, well below the European Union average of 426 for the same period, the agency said.

Firefighters called off a strike to help with the disaster, while hospital staff, many operating on reduced salaries because of spending cuts in recession-hit Spain, worked overtime to tend the injured.

The disaster happened at 8.41 pm (1841 GMT) on the eve of a festival dedicated to St James, one of Jesus's 12 disciples, whose remains are said to rest in the city's centuries-old cathedral.

The apostle's shrine is the destination of the famous El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across the Pyrenees, which has been followed by Christians since the Middle Ages.

Instead of a joyous festival, masses were held every hour in the cathedral. "The main mass was transformed from a mass of joy into a mass of mourning," said Italian pilgrim Irene Valsangiacomo.

One US citizen died in the crash and five were injured, the State Department said in Washington. Mexico said one of its nationals was among the dead.

At least one British citizen was injured, a British embassy spokesman said. Several other nationalities were believed to be among the passengers.

Neighbours ran to the site to help emergency workers tend to the wounded. Ana Taboada, a 29-year-old hospital worker, was one of the first on the scene.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was born in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia region, visited the site and the main hospital on Thursday.

He declared three days of official national mourning for the victims of the disaster.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia also went to Santiago and visited the injured in hospital.

Passenger Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station the train approached the curve at high speed, twisted and the carriages piled up one on top of the other.

Both Renfe and state-owned Adif, which is in charge of the tracks, had opened an investigation into the cause of the derailment, Renfe said.

Clinics in Santiago de Compostela were overwhelmed with people flocking to give blood, while hotels organised free rooms for relatives. Madrid sent forensic scientists and hospital staff to the scene on special flights.

The train was travelling from Madrid to Ferrol on the Galician coast when it derailed, Renfe said in a statement. It left Madrid on time and was travelling on schedule, a spokeswoman said.

With Reuters input


First Published: Friday, July 26, 2013, 09:05


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