'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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Microsoft Dynamics Consultant - Watford - £65,000 + Bonus.

£50000 - £65000 per annum + bonus and benefits: Ashdown Group: Dynamics Expert...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - London - up to £48,000

£38000 - £48000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Senior ...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower