German Rail Disaster: Hope of finding more train crash survivors fades

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The Independent Online
THE narrow street running past the bungalows and lush gardens of Eschede rises towards the bridge and then it is no more. The flyover that stood there two days ago, linking this neighbourhood with the bigger houses across the tracks, is gone. The road ends mid-air.

Below the bridge panels, now resting on the rails, two carriages lie crushed, the windows broken, their undercarriages twisted. Rescue workers struggling against the clock managed to free one of the waggons yesterday, but found no survivors, only more corpses, bringing the toll ever closer to the estimated 100.

From the precipice that remains of the former flyover, more carriages are strewn at strange angles. Some seem almost intact, others are mangled and sliced into so many slivers of red and white tin. One coach rests on the verge, stranded on the grass bank facing at right-angles to the original direction of its journey.

Another coach near by is facing in the right direction, but half of it has disintegrated under the force of the impact. Debris covers about half a mile of track.

The locals wander around in a daze, whispering to one another and straining to avert their gaze from the blood-stained scrapheap at the bottom of their gardens. Police stand guard by the wreckage as rescue crews toil away under the sun by day and in floodlight at night, hauling large blocks of rubble with the aid of chains and two large cranes.

Eschede gives the impression of a community under siege. Ambulances, sirens screaming, race towards the hospitals and mortuaries of neighbouring towns. The roads tremble under the weight of the armoured vehicles of border troops brought in to help with the task of digging the train out of its concrete sarcophagus.

Fears that a group of schoolchildren lay trapped in the restaurant car proved unfounded, but hope that survivors might yet be found is ebbing away. Apart from the groaning of metal under strain, the crushed coaches buried beneath the flyover give out no sound.

Grieving relatives coming from all corners of Germany are ushered into a sports hall. Some have been told the gruesome news, but others must wait, perhaps as long as the weekend, for certainty.

"Not all of the dead have been identified. We have many dead and, I regret to say, many body parts as well," said Klaus Rathert, a local official.

"I've never seen so many injured, so much destruction and so many dead. I believe this is what all of us are experiencing," Rev Cristoph Kunkel told villagers who gathered last night for a memorial service at the Lutheran church.

Psychologists and special counsellors were brought in yesterday to help the victims' relatives, and also rescue workers unable to cope with the horror of their grisly discoveries. After 36 hours of ceaseless work, rescue workers and police are shattered.

Eschede was graced with visits yesterday by both Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and his challenger, Gerhard Schroder. "The first thing I would like to express is my sadness and sympathy for the relatives of the victims, and secondly we hope that as many of the injured as possible will return to complete health," Mr Kohl said.

Hospitals were still treating nearly 100 passengers yesterday.

In Bonn's government district, flags flew at half mast in memory of the crash victims. Trains services on the stretch between Hanover and Hamburg suffered long delays yesterday. Today, the entire German train network is expected to plunge into chaos as the first-generation Inter City Express (ICE) trains are pulled off the tracks for urgent safety checks.