A train derailed outside the ancient northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday night, on the eve of a major religious festival, killing at least 80 people and injuring up to 131 in one of Europe’s worst rail disasters.
In what one local official described as a scene from hell, bodies covered in blankets lay next to the overturned carriages as smoke billowed from the wreckage after the disaster.
Firefighters clambered desperately over the twisted metal trying to get survivors out of the windows, while ambulances and fire engines surrounded the scene. Cranes were still pulling out mangled debris on Thursday morning, 12 hours after the crash.
The government said it was working on the assumption the derailment was an accident.
One official source said speeding was a likely cause of the derailment, which occurred as the train reached a curve in the track, but the public works minister said it was too early to draw conclusions on what had happened.
El Pais newspaper cited sources close to the investigation as saying the train was travelling at over twice the speed limit on a sharp curve and Santiago’s mayor said the train was probably going too fast.
“We heard a massive noise and we went down the tracks. I helped getting 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 Santiago de Compostela train operated by state rail company Renfe, which had 247 people on board, derailed as the city prepared for the renowned festival of Saint James, when thousands of Christian pilgrims from across the world pack the streets.
The city’s tourism board said all festivities, including the traditional High Mass at the centuries-old cathedral, had been cancelled as the city went into mourning following the crash.
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Passenger Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station the train approached the curve at high speed, twisted and wagons 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 wagon and there was fire. … I saw corpses,” he said.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was born in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia region, visited the site on Thursday morning. He was due to go to the main hospital later in the day and hold an emergency meeting with local authorities.
“In the face of a tragedy such as just happened in Santiago de Compostela on the eve of its big day, I can only express my deepest sympathy as a Spaniard and a Galician,” he said in a written statement late on Wednesday.