‘I was talking to them so they wouldn’t sleep, so they wouldn’t die. It was hell’

Local resident Isidro Castaño was one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the crash.

A fireman carries a wounded victim from the wreckage of a train crash near Santiago de Compostela.

A fireman carries a wounded victim from the wreckage of a train crash near Santiago de Compostela.

Fri, Jul 26, 2013, 08:29

It was meant to be a day of celebration. July 25th is the feast of St James, the symbol of Santiago de Compostela, whose bones pilgrims believe are buried in the city’s cathedral. Every year on this date the city erupts in a blend of fireworks, religious ceremony and sheer joy.

Instead, yesterday was a day of unimaginable grief for Santiago de Compostela. As the death toll from Wednesday night’s train crash on the outskirts of the city rose throughout the day, pain extinguished any prospect of celebration.

Local resident Isidro Castaño was one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the crash. Met by the sight of bodies that had been thrown out of the train and on to the track as carriages burned and belched smoke, he did his best to help the injured.


‘Hell’
“I was talking to them so they wouldn’t sleep, so they wouldn’t die” he told El País newspaper. “It was hell.”

“It’s been absolutely unimaginable and the fact it’s happened on this date – it’s too much,” said Ramón Altera, an unemployed man in his 30s who lives near the site of the crash.

His wife, María Isabel Pérez, told of how a workmate had been waiting for her boyfriend to arrive on the train from Madrid. The couple were going to spend the weekend together. “He was one of the ones who passed away,” she said, unable to hold back tears.

Some of the tragic stories were recounted in all their raw emotion on social media, like that of Carolina Besada, a well-known local football player who died on the train. On initially hearing of the accident, her sister, Marta, posted on Twitter: “The damn train on which my sister was travelling has j ust been derailed.”

Carolina’s family and fellow members of Cidade das Burgas football team frantically searched for her in local hospitals, constantly tweeting messages of support and encouragement.

But they found her in the last place that they wanted to: in the makeshift morgue set up for victims of the accident. “Rest in peace, Carolina . . .” tweeted Marta after hearing she was dead.


Stunned
Hundreds of local people from the city and nearby towns visited the site of the crash throughout the day. Stunned, they observed the wreckage of the train from the vantage point of a nearby bridge.

“I’ve walked past her a lot and I’d never taken a close look at that curve,” said Ramón López Castiñeiras, a retired carpenter. “It’s such a tight bend it’s incredible. There’s no way you can go round it at speed. Who knows what happened – maybe the driver wasn’t concentrating, who knows?”

Against the backdrop of the mountainous Galician countryside, two cranes stood over the crash site as emergency workers sought to clear the wreckage.

The city centre, meanwhile, was a shadow of its normal self. With the day’s festivities cancelled and seven days of mourning declared, pilgrims were still visible in the streets, clutching their scallop-topped walking staves, but the mood was more sombre than normal. As dozens of emergency service vehicles worked throughout the day and with rail services disrupted, traffic moved at a funereal pace around the outskirts of the city.


Heroics
But despite the grim atmosphere, many locals were proud of the way people had responded to the tragedy, citing the heroics of those who broke carriage windows to pull survivors out of the wreckage, or the willingness to give blood.

“In Galicia people always help each other. That’s how things should be – but in this day and age it seems strange,” said María Isabel Pérez as she walked away from the crash site.