At least 34 die in Spanish underground crash

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The Independent Online

At least 34 people were killed and at least 20 were seriously injured yesterday when an underground train derailed in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia, in one of the worst rail accidents in Spain's history.

The train, which was travelling on the Number One line, had just left the Jesus station in the Patraix neighbourhood when it sped off the track and overturned, leaving more than 100 people trapped. Emergency services were alerted by a phone call from one of the passengers.

Police cordoned off the area while more than 150 people were evacuated from the scene and the injured taken to hospitals across the city, one of Spain's biggest with a population of 800,000.

Cesar Hernandez, 21, who escaped the wreckage after smashing a window in his carriage and climbing out, said the train "suddenly gathered unusual speed and started reeling from side to side. Then it stopped suddenly.

"There was a lot of confusion. I saw smoke and many people in a state of shock, although the train wasn't overcrowded. There wasn't much light and I couldn't see much of what was on the tracks. I saw people on the ground, but I just ran."

Luis Felipe Martinez, a government spokesman, saidinitial reports suggested that speed and a defective wheel may have caused the train crash.

"It seems that this unfortunate accident was caused by excess speed and a wheel breaking just before it entered the station," he said.

Local officials ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash, which happened at 1pm, a busy travelling time for Spaniards who head home for lunch. In 2004, 191 people died in Islamic terror attacks when trains were bombed in Madrid.

But one of Spain's main Trade Unions, CCOO, was unhappy with the official statement. The organisation criticised the authorities for rushing into conclusions, and blamed the crash on "poor maintenance and ongoing deterioration" of the subway line.

This is not the first time Valencia's Number One underground route has been hit by disaster. Last September two trains collided on the same line, injuring 29 people. The city's subway system was built 18 years ago and carries about 165,000 people a day.

The accident comes as Valencia prepares to receive Pope Benedict XVI, who will attend the World Meeting of Families next weekend with up to 1.5 million pilgrims. The high number of visitors is expected to put an additional strain on the subway network.

Thousands of yachting enthusiasts were also visiting Valencia, which is staging warm-up races for the Americas Cup.

The Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, expressed his condolences from India, where he is on an official visit, and said that he would cut his trip short and return to Spain.