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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map