When Amy Barnicoat-Hood realised how narrowly she escaped last week’s train crash in Spain which killed 80 people, her first reaction was to laugh out of sheer, glad-to-be-alive relief. Only later did the horror of the accident become clear.
“It took a while to sink in. I think at first I was in shock. Then, on Thursday night, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking ‘that was really close’. I had nightmares: I couldn’t stop thinking about the people in the queue that I’d let in front of me. In a way... I let them closer to their death.”
Boarding the ill-fated train at Madrid’s Camartine station, Amy and her boyfriend Ignacio Gorostidi Sánchez stepped out of the queue to look for their passports. When they retook their place, a grey-haired man scowled at them, thinking they had pushed in. Ahead, a short, middle-aged woman chain-smoked. “That’s what I keep coming back to: the people we were waiting with who may have been killed,” says Amy, 25, an English teacher living in Madrid who grew up near Kendal in Cumbria. “It’s horrific.”
“At first, I wanted to know what had happened and read the newspaper and watched reports on the TV. But now, all the coverage is about who’s to blame and what should happen next. It’s trivial and depressing.”
Last weekend was a regional bank holiday in Galicia. Many people were leaving Madrid early to be with their families. Their train had departed at 3pm and as it approached Galicia, Amy looked up at the speedometer in their carriage. It read 200kmh (124mph). “Jesus, that’s fast,” she said to Ignacio.
They passed the seven-and-a-half hour journey playing cards and sleeping. At the town of Ourense, the train divided, with Amy and Ignacio’s section completing the journey to the coast. The other section – driven by Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, who now awaits 79 charges of reckless homicide – continued north-west, towards Santiago de Compostela. After a straight, gradually declining 80km stretch of track, the train entered a corner at over twice the speed limit, smashing into an embankment.
Amy is still shaken by how close they came to tragedy and says she can’t stop thinking about the train journey she will have to make alone back to Madrid. “It’s so surreal. I keep thinking ‘I was actually there… that was almost us’.”
The region has been deeply shaken by the accident. Galicia is fiercely regional: locals speak their own dialect and those who move to Madrid or Barcelona maintain strong ties to their hometown. Ignacio’s mother grew up with an uncle in Bueu, a village of 13,000 on the northern coast, and the family return every summer.
It is an hour’s drive south of Santiago de Compostela, a site of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages which was to host the feast of St James last weekend. In Spanish, St James is Santiago, while the origin of Compostela is unclear, with suggestions that it is a corruption of the old Spanish for burial ground. The literal translation is “field of stars”. Instead of celebrations last weekend, the stages sat silent, adorned with black ribbons commemorating the dead.
“Had I been killed in the accident, people in England wouldn’t have found out until early this week, at least. They’re still identifying the bodies, and it would have taken them a while to get in touch with my family,” says Amy. “Friends have been ringing me all week. I feel a bit stupid because a lot of people died or were injured and I’m getting these calls and messages saying ‘I hope you’re OK’. I don’t feel it’s deserved; something terrible has happened and a lot of people have died – and really I’m fine.”
Three warnings in two minutes before tragedy
The driver of the Spanish train ignored three warnings to reduce speed in the two minutes before the train hurtled off the tracks on a treacherous curve, investigators have said.
A court statement said the driver was talking on the phone to a colleague when he received the first automatic warning in his cabin of a sharply reduced speed zone ahead. The statement said the warning was by means of an audible sound but provided no further detail.
Police tests on the train’s data recorders showed that the last warning came just 250 metres before the point where the accident occurred.