Spanish rail disaster: The scene in Galicia - 'I came for a christening, but now I’m going to a funeral'

Rescuers describe scenes of carnage in a region plunged into sudden grief and disbelief. Martin Roberts reports from Angrois

The people of the Spanish region of Galicia had been looking forward to the feast of St James the Apostle, the patron saint of nearby Santiago de Compostela – a holiday throughout the region.  Yet when they awoke this morning, they were faced with the mangled, bloody wreckage of the country’s worst train crash in decades, and neighbours racked with grief as they prepared to bury their dead.

As dawn broke across the rain-swept fields, rescue workers were searching for any sign of life among the crushed carriages of the Madrid to Ferrol train, which came off the tracks near Santiago de Compostela at 8.41pm the previous evening, killing at least 80 people and injuring more than 140 others. Thirty-six people remained in a critical condition last night.

Massive cranes loomed over the tracks, where dozens of police and forensics officers combed the area for clues as to why the train had taken a tight bend at what appeared to be almost twice the permitted speed of 80km (50 miles) per hour, propelling carriages up a 10-metre-high embankment and scattering bodies across the rails.

“We saw a scene from Dante,” said Isidoro Castaño, who was at a residents’ association meeting when the train, bearing more than 200 holidaymakers, crashed off the rails while travelling through the village of Angrois.

“Carriages were burning; there was a thick, black mushroom cloud and we could hear people screaming. The emergency services had yet to turn up, so we struggled to get the passengers out and laid them on the ground. Some were bleeding, some dead,” he said.

Francisco Fernandez, a civil defence worker, rubbed his eyes after working through the night in the nightmare scenario he had trained for but had never had to put into practice. He lives locally, and was on the scene within minutes. “It was awful. There were people strewn all over the place, cut to pieces. Some without legs, some headless,” he said. “We’re not finished yet. We’ll keep working until the job is done.”

Hearses working overtime rolled into an improvised morgue set up in a nearby sports centre in the village of Angrois, where more forensics teams struggled to piece together the remains of bodies and identify those who had perished. By mid-morning, officials had yet to identify half the dead in the makeshift morgue. A full list was not expected until 10pm last night.

“You’ll have to contact the appropriate funeral parlour; we can’t help,” a policeman told a man asking after a missing relative outside the Fontes do Sar sports centre. “They can’t be sure. Several bodies are not in one piece.”

Another man, who had eagerly awaited the holiday to celebrate a christening, was one of many who came away from a victims’ support centre plunged into mourning. Paramedics and officials had told him one of his loved ones, who lived locally, was among the dead.

“I came here for a christening and now I’m going to a funeral,” the man, who declined to give his name, told The Independent. He stood in the dull, grey San Lazaro business park, where the victims’ support centre had been hastily assembled.

Yards away, Franciscan monks sang hymns as they led a procession to Santiago cathedral, along a route trodden by pilgrims since the Middle Ages. Television stations reporting the events displayed funereal black ribbons and played traditional mournful Celtic tunes from Galicia.

The first villagers knew of the crash in Angrois was when the ground shook as they heard a noise many took to be a gas explosion, or even fireworks going off to mark the start of the local revelry. Many ran outside to find two of the train’s eight carriages had flattened the town’s bandstand.

Maria Carral, who has lived in the village for 66 years, said the police response to the crash had been slow – they could not believe their ears when locals first cried for help.

“They thought we were joking, so I told a lad to say, ‘For Christ’s sake, tell them there’s bodies lying on the ground’. Then more people showed up and began to call, so they finally came,” she said.

Mingled with the grief was a sense of disbelief that such an incident could happen in modern Spain. Death tolls this high have not been seen on the country’s railways since the bad days of dictatorship and underdevelopment last century.

Experts analysing CCTV footage of the crash have said they believe the Madrid-Ferrol express came hurtling into the bend at an unsafe speed. The train had just left a section of track which had been upgraded for high-speed trains designed to travel at up to 250km (155 miles) per hour. It was about to join a conventional stretch leading to Santiago station 4km away. 

“From maps, it appears that the track at this point has a curve radius of about 500 metres. UK practice would be that the speed limit round such a curve would be between 70km per hour and 100km per hour,” Professor Roger Kemp, who is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said in a statement. “The big question is why the train was running at more than twice the speed limit. As the driver was leaving the high-speed line to join a much slower route, there must have been at least prominent visual warnings to reduce speed, if not audible warnings and an electronic speed supervision system.”

The driver, who survived the crash, was placed into formal investigation, but was not under arrest this evening. Meanwhile, trade unions denied the driver could be at fault, and suggested modern traffic management systems had yet to be installed on all sections of the route.

“The facts need to be confirmed,” the engine drivers’ leader Juan Jose Garcia told state television. “Just let’s say that between Ourense and Santiago there is a safety mechanism, but 4km from Santiago that mechanism doesn’t exist.”

The Spanish government and opposition took a rare break from wrangling over corruption scandals, a deep-seated economic crisis, spending cuts and chronic unemployment to join the country in three days’ official mourning. Spain’s embattled Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, who was born in Santiago de Compostela, said he had ordered a full investigation as he toured the crash site yesterday. 

“Today is a very difficult day. We have lived through a terrible, dramatic accident, which I fear will stay with us for a long time,” Mr Rajoy said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Planner

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen withi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

Recruitment Genius: Existing Customer Telephone Consultants

£13000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Every day they get another 1000...

Recruitment Genius: Contract Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor