Sixteen dead after Polish train crash

Mon, Mar 5, 2012, 00:00

TWO TRAINS running on the same track collided head-on in southern Poland, leaving 16 people dead and 58 injured in the country’s worst train disaster in more than 20 years.

The powerful collision near the town of Szczekociny, just north of Krakow, occurred on Saturday night after one of the trains ended up on the wrong track.

The impact left several hulks of mangled metal smashed on the tracks, with cars overturned and on their sides.

The battered locomotive of one of the trains had jackknifed upwards from the force of the crash. Rescuers worked through the night to recover bodies and help the wounded.

Maintenance work was being done on the tracks in the area, but officials say it is too early to determine the cause of the disaster.

An American woman was among the dead.

Prime minister Donald Tusk earlier had said several of the passengers were foreigners, including people from Ukraine, Spain and France, but that none of them was among the dead or most seriously injured.

President Bronislaw Komorowski visited the site yesterday morning, saying when rescue efforts were over he would make an announcement about a period of national mourning.

“This is our most tragic train disaster in many, many years,” Mr Tusk said.

An unnamed passenger interviewed on the all-news station TVN24 said he felt the force of the collision.

“I hit the person in front of me. The lights went out. Everything flew,” he said. “We flew over the compartment like bags. We could hear screams. We prayed.”

Rescuers brought in heavy equipment to free a body from the wreckage, and ended up finding two, a spokesman for firefighters, Radoslaw Lendor, told TVN24.

A doctor in one of the hospitals, Szymon Nowak, said many of the injured were in a serious condition, with some in artificially induced comas.

“It’s a very, very sad day and night in the history of Polish railways and for all of us,” Mr Tusk said.

The trains hold up to 350 passengers but it is not clear how many were on board at the time of the collision.

The accident comes three months before millions of soccer fans will start crisscrossing the country, many by train, to watch matches at the Euro 2012 championships, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into how the train came to be on the wrong track, but officials said it is too soon to draw any conclusions.

One train was travelling from the eastern city of Przemysl to Warsaw in the north, while the other – on the wrong track – was heading south from Warsaw to Krakow.

Mr Komorowski visited the crash site and hospitals where the injured were being treated.

“The scale of this phenomenon is so large that there should be nationwide mourning,” he said.

The fate of the two drivers was not immediately known as the authorities were still identifying the dead bodies.

More than 350 firefighters rushed to the scene but had to carry their equipment by hand because the trains collided in the middle of a field crossed only by the train tracks.

In the hours following the 9pm (8pm GMT) collision, they searched the wreck and pried out survivors. The injured were taken to hospitals in the region by helicopter and ambulance. – (AP, Reuters, Bloomberg)