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.