Driver held as death toll reaches at least 80

The driver of a Spanish train was taken into custody in hospital last night after at least 80 people died when it derailed and caught fire in a crash which was reportedly caused by excessive speed.

The eight-carriage high velocity train came off the tracks just outside Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on Wednesday night. It was one of Europe’s worst rail disasters.

The pilgrimage centre of Santiago should have been celebrating one of Europe’s biggest Christian festivals yesterday on the feast of St James. Authorities cancelled festivities as the city went into mourning.

The Galicia region supreme court said the judge investigating the accident had ordered police to put the driver in custody and take a statement from him. He was under formal investigation, the court said.

Dramatic video footage from a security camera showed the train, with 247 people on board, hurtling into a concrete wall at the side of the track as carriages jack-knifed and the engine overturned.

One official described the aftermath as like a scene from hell, with bodies strewn next to the tracks.

One carriage flew several metres into the air and landed on the other side of the high concrete barrier.

Some 94 people were injured, of whom 35 were in a serious condition, including four children, the regional government said.

“We heard a massive noise and we went down the tracks. I helped get a few injured and bodies out of the train. I went into one of the cars but I’d rather not tell you what I saw there,” Ricardo Martinez, 47, said.

The train had two drivers, the government said.

Investigators were trying to urgently establish why the train was going so fast and why security devices to keep speed within permitted limits had not worked.

The train was built by Bombardier and Talgo and was around five years old. It had almost the maximum number of passengers.

Firefighters called off a strike to help with the disaster, while hospital staff worked overtime to tend to the injured.

The disaster happened at 8.41pm on the eve of a festival dedicated to St James, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, whose remains are said to rest in the city’s centuries-old cathedral. The apostle’s shrine is the destination of the famous Camino pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to Santiago.

Instead of a joyous festival, Masses were held every hour in the cathedral. “The main Mass was transformed from a Mass of joy into a Mass of mourning,” said Italian pilgrim Irene Valsangiacomo.

Several nationalities were believed to be among the casualties.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was born in Santiago, visited the site and the hospital yesterday. He declared three days of official national mourning for the victims of the disaster.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia also went to Santiago and visited the injured in hospital.

Passenger Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station the train approached the curve at high speed, twisted and the carriages piled up one on top of the other. “A lot of people were squashed on the bottom... I was in the second carriage and there was fire... I saw corpses.”

Both Renfe and Adif, which is in charge of the tracks, had opened an investigation into the cause of the derailment, Renfe said.

The train was travelling from Madrid to Ferrol on the coast when it derailed. It left Madrid on time and was travelling on schedule, a Renfe spokeswoman said.

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