Rescuers continued their search for victims today as experts began an investigation into the Belgian rush-hour train crash.
A rush-hour commuter train sped through a red signal and slammed into an oncoming train as it left a suburban Brussels station yesterday, killing at least 18 people and disrupting rail traffic in northern Europe.
Investigations into one the worst accidents on the Belgian rails were likely to focus on whether human error was responsible or if it could have been influenced by the persistently freezing temperatures that have iced up the European capital.
Officials said 80 people were injured, 20 of them seriously in yesterday’s crash. The death toll – 15 men and three women – was not considered final.
The fate of the two drivers was not immediately known and officials said they were having difficulty identifying some of the victims.
The trains, carrying a total of about 300 passengers, collided in light snow just outside of the station at Buizingen about nine miles from Brussels at around 8.30am (7.30am Irish Time).
The impact peeled away the front of one train carriage and threw at least one other off the tracks, severing the limbs of some passengers, witnesses and officials said.
One engine was thrust high into the air and snapped overhead power lines.
“When we came out we saw dead bodies lying next to the tracks, some mutilated,” said Patricia Lallemand, 40, who was in a middle car of one train and was unhurt.
Lodewijk De Witte, the governor of the province of Flemish Brabant, told reporters one train “apparently did not heed a stop light”.
One of the front carriages appeared to have careened across the tracks, demolishing a small maintenance shed next to the rail line. A high concrete wall around the train yard seemed to have kept debris from hitting nearby houses.
Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, expressed his “shock and sorrow” over the accident. King Baudouin and Prime Minister Yves Leterme, who cancelled a trip to Kosovo moments after landing in Pristina, visited the crash site.
It was the first serious Belgian train accident since March 28 2001, when eight people died when a crowded train smashed into an empty train driving on the wrong tracks.
The worst European crash in recent history was near the German town of Eschede in 1998 when around 100 people were killed when a cracked wheel hurled a train off the tracks.
Belgian National Railways spokesman Jochen Goovaerts said his agency was awaiting the outcome of the investigation before discussing the cause of yesterday’s accident.
Eurostar cancelled its service from London to Brussels and advised passengers the line was likely to remain closed today. The high-speed Thalys train suspended dozens of trains from Paris to the Netherlands and Germany for two days.
At least four Thalys trains were stopped en route, and the railway operator deployed staffers to stations where they were rerouted to provide assistance to travellers on board, said spokeswoman Patricia Baars.
“It was a nightmare,” Christian Wampach, 47, said after medical workers bandaged his head at a sports complex where the less seriously injured were treated.
Badly hurt victims were taken to 14 hospitals in the Brussels area, and the Red Cross appealed for blood donations.
“We were thrown about for about 15 seconds. There were a number of people injured in my car, but I think all the dead were in the first car,” said Mr Wampach, who was in the third carriage of a Brussels-bound train.
Wira Leire, 20, said he was woken by a loud crashing sound and leapt to his bedroom window to see two carriages jack-knifed directly in front of his home.
“There were people lying on the ground next to the train, so I grabbed some blankets and ran into the back garden,” he said. “But I but couldn’t climb over the concrete wall, so I just threw the blankets to the rescuers who were already gathering.”