As 1,100 rescuers worked through the night sifting through the mangled wreckage near the north German village of Eschede, fears grew for a group of schoolchildren believed trapped.
Two first-class carriages had been buried under the rubble of the bridge that collapsed over the railway line as the train derailed at 125mph and ploughed into the supporting pillars. The driver survived the collision. He was reported to be receiving treatment for shock last night.
It was the worst railway accident in Germany in 50 years, though several hours after the crash, and with scores of injured still trapped in the horrifying crush of wreckage, it was still unclear how the disaster happened. The Inter City Express, the futuristic flagship of German Railways, was travelling at full speed towards the station in Eschede, 35 miles north of Hanover, on its journey from Munich to Hamburg, when, according to eyewitness reports, a car plunged off the road bridge that passes over the track and hit one of the first carriages. The nose of the train had cleared the bridge but 13 carriages were derailed, jackknifed and smashed upwards into the road.
The German public prosecutor's office last night began an investigation into the crash. It said that it had established that the train was braking at the time of the crash as a result of an instruction from the signalling equipment.
A police spokesman, Joachim Lindenberg, said the train had been forced upwards into the overpass with sudden, massive force, and that a car parked on the bridge had been brought plunging on to the tracks. The car, he said, belonged to a rail employee. A car was found under the wreckage, so it was expected that investigators would be able to establish how the first impact occurred.
Further evidence emerged from a survivor, who had been travelling in the second carriage. Wolf Schlibener said that two minutes before the accident he had heard a "tremendous rattling and shaking" in the train. "There was a huge cloud of smoke and my first thought was how do I get out," he said. "The window was cracked but there was a stone and I used that to break it open further. Thank God, a conductor came past at that time and he pulled me out. When I saw what had happened I realised how lucky I had been to get out at all."
The disaster happened at 11am under bright blue skies on a warm spring day.
More than 800 rescue workers, among them 20 British soldiers and army doctors from a nearby base at Celle, battled to free dead and injured from the mangled carriages. A crane lifted massive chunks of concrete off the cars so that those trapped inside could be reached.
One firefighter said they were afraid how many children were still buried in the wreckage, which was spread out along the four straight tracks for several hundred yards.
"I was in the kitchen peeling potatoes when I heard a train go by faster than ever before," said Hannelore Bonkewitz. "Then I heard a huge bang. I saw a giant cloud of smoke. The rescue workers asked me to get blankets. I brought all the blankets and sheets that I own. I saw a man trying to climb out of the train. His hands were covered with blood."
Chancellor Helmut Kohl interrupted his meeting in Bologna with the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, and rushed back to Germany. The government in Bonn has declared today a day of mourning, and the Red Cross appealed for blood donations.Reuse content