Driver of derailed Spanish train ‘under investigation’

At least 80 people dead after high speed crash near Santiago de Compostela

Fri, Jul 26, 2013, 00:53

One of the drivers of a Spanish train which derailed yesterday killing at least 80 passengers is being formally investigated in connection with the incident.

Police in Spain tonight took the driver into custody in hospital and official sources have indicated the crash 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 Spain’s northwest. The incident ranks as one of Europe’s worst ever rail disasters.

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Santiago was preparing to celebrate one of Europe’s biggest Christian festivals when the incident occurred and authorities have since 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.

Video footage from a security camera shows 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 big 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.

Local 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 spokeswoman for rail firm Renfe said.

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 km/h. An official source said the speed limit on that stretch of twin track, laid in 2011, was 80 km/h.

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 onboard.

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.

Prime mminister Mariano Rajoy, who was born in Santiago de Compostela, visited the site and the main hospital today. 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.

“A lot of people were squashed on the bottom. We tried to squeeze out of the bottom of the wagons to get out and we realised the train was burning. ... I was in the second carriage and there was fire. ... I saw corpses,” he said.

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.

Reuters