'Apocalypse' on railway in Tuscany

A freight train carrying liquid gas came off the tracks and exploded in the heart of an Italian seaside resort

The pretty, tree-lined streets of the Tuscan seaside resort of Viareggio would still have been busy just before midnight on Monday, when a freight train passing through derailed. Its cargo of liquid gas exploded, engulfing the town's station and surrounding homes in flames leaving at least 13 dead and dozens seriously injured.

Several people including a baby were incinerated; white blankets on the road would later mark the places where the blaze had consumed them. Dozens more suffered terrible burns.

Initial reports put the death toll at 16, but this was later revised down. The head of the civil protection agency, Guido Bertolaso, had said many people were still unaccounted for as 300 firefighters and hundreds of volunteers used their bare hands to dig under the rubble. Last night, 36 people were in critical conditions with serious burns.

Witnesses spoke of an "apocalyptic scene"; one man on a scooter was seen "burning like a torch". He fell with his helmet still on his head, "completely carbonised", next to the body of a woman. Five others were seen running in the street screaming, in flames. Emergency services moved to evacuate more than 1,000 people as the fire spread and several four-storey apartment blocks collapsed from the force of the initial explosion. Hundreds fled the area dressed only in night clothes.

It is believed at least one of the rear carriages of the train derailed at 50mph and exploded. "We saw a ball of fire rising up to the sky," said Gianfranco Bini, who lives in a building overlooking the station. "We heard three big rumbles, like bombs. It looked like war had broken out."

Federica Bertucelli, a student, said she heard three explosions. "When I went out into the street, the garden in the next house was in flames. I saw at least five people burning."

A four-year-old girl suffered burns to 90 per cent of her body and was rushed by helicopter to the Baby Jesus Paediatric Hospital in Rome.

One man desperate to save himself from the fire sweeping the upper floors of his building leapt on to a canopy with his son in his embrace. The eight-year-old suffered a minor cut; his father is in a critical condition.

Another witness said she found a burnt body in the street. "I heard the explosion and I went out into the street to find myself faced with flames and a motionless charred body lying on the ground," the witness told the Italian news agency Ansa. "It was a terrifying scene that I will never forget."

The train's other carriages, carrying tanks of the highly flammable gas, remained on the track of the La Spezia-Pisa rail line, a few hundred metres outside Viareggio station. Fire fighters were working to make these safe. Teams specialised in chemical and biological leaks were enlisted to handle the crisis.

Although people were still in the area when the accident happened, emergency workers expressed relief at the timing. "If this had happened in the afternoon, it would have been an utter human catastrophe. We need to thank God for that," one fireman said.

Most of the injured are being treated at Versilia hospital in Viareggio.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi travelled to the scene from Naples "to take charge" but he was greeted by boos and cries to "go home".

Mauro Moretti, a spokesman for the state railways system, said initial evidence suggested that human error was not to blame for the crash. Instead a broken axle on one of the trains caused it to derail and fall into the path of the other oncoming train, he said.

Investigations are under way. Guglielmo Epifani, the general secretary of the Cgil public sector union, said the decrepit state of the rolling stock meant the Viareggio disaster was "a tragedy waiting to happen".

The Italian railways have a reputation for unreliability and ancient rolling stock. Despite rising fares, crowded carriages and cancellations have made headlines this year. Users of rail services between Genoa and Rome were yesterday bracing themselves for massive disruption.

Residents displaced by the explosion were being put up in tents surrounding Viareggio's town hall or in local hotels and campsites, the town's Mayor, Luca Lunardini, said.