Investigations into Spain’s deadliest train crash in decades have only begun, but already a key question has been answered: experts said that the driver, not a computer, was responsible for applying the brakes because a no “fail-safe” system has been installed on the dangerous stretch of bending track.
The question of whether the brakes failed – or were never used – in the approach to Santiago de Compostela may remain open until police can question the injured driver and analyse the data on the train’s just-recovered “black box”.
Police announced they had arrested 52-year-old Francisco Jose Garzon Amo on suspicion of reckless driving because the train hit the turn on Wednesday travelling far faster than its posted 80kph (50mph) limit. The train’s eight carriages packed with 218 passengers tumbled off the tracks into a concrete wall, and diesel fuel powering the engine sent flames coursing through some cabins.
As the first funeral ceremonies began on Friday night, authorities working from a sports arena-turned-morgue announced they had positively identified 75 of the 78 people killed in the crash.
They lowered the death toll from 80 after determining that some severed body parts had wrongly been attributed to different victims. They said five of the dead came from Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico and the United States.
Adif, Spain’s railway agency, confirmed that a high-tech automatic braking programme called the European Rail Traffic Management System was installed on most of the high-speed track leading from Madrid north to Santiago de Compostela - but the cutting-edge coverage stops just five kilometres (three miles) south of where the crash occurred, placing a greater burden on the driver to take charge.
Adif spokeswoman Maria Carmen Palao said the driver from that point on had sole control of brakes and when to use them. She said even European Rail Traffic Management technology might not have been powerful enough to stop a speeding train in time.
“Regardless of the system in place, the drivers know the speed limits. If these are respected, an accident should not take place,” she said. “Whatever speed the train was travelling at, the driver knows beforehand what lies ahead. ... There’s no sudden change in which a driver finds out by surprise that he has to change speed.”
Gonzalo Ferre, Adif’s president, said the driver should have started slowing the train four kilometres (2.5 miles) before the dangerous bend, which comes immediately after the trains exit a tunnel.
He said signs clearly marked this point when the driver must begin to slow “because as soon as he exits the tunnel he needs to be travelling at 80 kilometres per hour”.
Spain’s state-run train company, Renfe, described Mr Amo as an experienced driver who knew the Madrid-Santiago route well. It said he had driven that train about 60 times in the past year.
“The knowledge of this line that he had to have is exhaustive,” Renfe’s president, Julio Gomez-Pomar, said in a TV interview.
A senior Spanish train driver, Manuel Mato, said all drivers who operate on that route know they “have to reduce the speed manually, and at this spot the drop is very sharp”. He said the track south of the tunnel is straight and permits speeds of up to 200kph (125mph).
An American passenger, Stephen Ward, said he was watching the train’s speed on a carriage display screen – and reported that the train accelerated, not slowed, as it headed for disaster.
He said moments before the crash, the display indicated 194kph (121mph), more than double the speed limit, whereas earlier in the journey, he saw speeds averaging nearer 100kph (60mph).
Mr Ward, an 18-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah, told the Associated Press that seconds after he saw the surprisingly high speed, “the train lifted up off the track. It was like a roller coaster”. He recalled a backpack falling from the rack above him as his last memory before being knocked out.
When Mr Ward awoke, he said someone helped him crawl out of a ditch. He thought he was dreaming until he felt his blood-drenched face and began to grasp the scene around him.
“Everyone was covered in blood. There was smoke coming up off the train,” he said. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of screaming. There were plenty of dead bodies. It was quite gruesome.”
On Friday, workers gradually cleaned up the disaster scene. Hundreds of onlookers watched as crews used a crane to hoist smashed and burned-up cars on to flat-bed trucks to cart them away.
However, the shattered front engine remained beside the track, though lifted back upright. Passenger trains, many of them the identical Alvia model, passed by the spot just yards away.
At night, grieving families gathered for the first funerals near Santiago de Compostela, a site of Catholic pilgrimage that had been preparing to celebrate its most revered saint, Jesus’s disciple James, whose remains are said to rest in a shrine in the city. Annual festivities planned for Thursday were cancelled.
Jaime Iglesias, police chief of Spain’s north west Galicia region, said Mr Amo would be questioned “as a suspect for a crime linked to the cause of the accident”.
When asked, Mr Iglesias described Mr Amo’s alleged offence as “recklessness”. He declined to elaborate.
The driver, who suffered a gashed head in the crash, was put under police guard but has yet to be interviewed. That might be delayed because of his injuries, Mr Iglesias said.
Renfe said Mr Amo is a 30-year employee of the state train company, who became an assistant driver in 2000 and a fully qualified driver in 2003.
Antonio del Amo, chief scientific officer of Spain’s National Police, cautioned that the death toll could be revised as they continue their work DNA-testing body parts on what they believe are three unidentified victims.
Catholic Church authorities in the US state of Virginia identified the dead American as Ana Maria Cordoba, 47. She had been travelling to Santiago de Compostela to meet up with her youngest son, also named Santiago, who had just completed the area’s celebrated religious trek through the mountains of northern Spain: El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James.
The New York Daily News reported that Mrs Cordoba’s husband and daughter were also on the train but survived, with the husband sustaining skull injuries and the daughter a broken leg.
The Dominican government identified its victim as Ynoa Rosalina Gonzalez, 42, a senior official in the country’s economy ministry. It said Ms Gonzalez’s two sisters provided DNA samples to confirm the identity of the body.
Spain, a country of 47 million with extensive and popular train services, also has a history of terrible crashes.
Much of the Spanish and international media have described the crash as Spain’s worst since 1944, but this reflects disputed public records that Spain has kept of some previous crashes.
According to Spain’s highest-circulation newspaper, El Pais, this is the nation’s most deadly train crash since 1972, when an express train collided with a local commuter service and killed 86. Others say 76 or 77 died, which would make its death toll marginally lower than Wednesday’s calamity.
The 1944 crash is murkier. The Franco dictatorship at the time sought to suppress news of the full death toll when three trains collided in a tunnel, insisting that 78 perished. Later investigations put the toll above 500.