Driver in Custody After 80 Killed in Spain Train Crash

Rail workers inspect the tracks at the site of a train crash near Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, Thursday. (REUTERS/Miguel Vidal)
Rail workers inspect the tracks at the site of a train crash near Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, Thursday. (REUTERS/Miguel Vidal)

Crash blamed on high speed

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

The eight-carriage high-velocity train came off the tracks just outside the pilgrimage center 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 this crash, which brought misery to Santiago on Thursday, the day it should have been celebrating one of Europe’s biggest festivals. Authorities canceled 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.

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

Some 94 people were injured, of whom 35 were in 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, told Reuters.

The train had two drivers, the Galicia government said, but it was not immediately clear which one was in the 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 some of his online posts, where he reportedly boasted of driving trains at high speed. The posts were taken offline on Thursday, and the reports could not be verified.

Train Hit Bend at Speed

The 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 120 mph (about 190 kph). 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 urgently to establish why the train was going so fast and why security devices to keep speed within permitted limits did not work.

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 kilometers traveled, 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.

One U.S. 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, and at least one British citizen was injured, a British Embassy spokesman said.

Passenger Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station the train approached the curve at high speed and 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 realized the train was burning. … I was in the second carriage and there was fire,” he said.

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

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

The train was traveling from Madrid to Ferrol on the Galician coast when it derailed, Renfe said in a statement.

The disaster stirred memories of a train bombing in Madrid in 2004, carried out by Islamist terrorists, that killed 191 people, although officials do not suspect an attack this time.

Spain is struggling to emerge from a long recession marked by government-driven austerity to put its finances in order.

But Adif, the state railways infrastructure company, told Reuters no budget cuts had been implemented on maintenance of the line, which connects La Coruna, Santiago de Compostela and Ourense.

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