Train crash overshadows biggest day for Spain's Santiago de Compostela

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — As 80 train passengers lie dead, Spain is struggling to come to terms with its worst rail disaster in decades.

"It's like the worst film you could possibly imagine," said Amparo Iglesias, who works in a gas station near where the crash took place, just outside Santiago de Compostela in Spain's northwest. "And it's all everybody is talking about."

A high-speed train traveling between the capital, Madrid, and the northwestern city of Ferrol derailed on Wednesday night as it rounded a curve, apparently at excess speed.

Video footage shows the train coming off the rails as it hits the bend, careering into a side wall and sending its eight carriages piling on top of one another.

"When we went into the bend everybody starting moving to the right," Cristobal, a passenger who suffered arm and head injuries, told El Pais newspaper. "Then the screaming started. The carriage was lifted up and it turned over. I lost consciousness, but I made it out on my own."

"The scene is shocking, it's Dante-esque," said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, premier of the region of Galicia of which Santiago de Compostela is the capital.

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Authorities said that 73 of those pronounced dead by Thursday evening had passed away at the site of the accident. The others had died in the hospital. On Thursday night, 87 people were still being treated for injuries.

Meanwhile, experts were asking relatives to help identify the bodies.

Iglesias, the gas station employee, knew a couple who were traveling on the train: "He survived. She didn't," she said.

Any other year Santiago de Compostela would have spent Thursday celebrating the biggest day in its calendar. July 25 is the feast day of Saint James, whose remains are purported to be kept in the city's enormous cathedral. Catholic pilgrims have flocked to Santiago for nine centuries and they continue to do so from around the world.

But this year, the fireworks and other festivities were canceled and three days of national mourning declared. Pilgrims still trod the winding streets of the city, many of them with walking staves in their hands, but the atmosphere was somber.

The tragedy cast a shadow much further, too. Many of those on board the train had come from other parts of Spain, or even abroad.

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Spain's extensive high-speed rail network has long been touted as proof of the development that followed its transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Much of the considerable funding Spain received from the European Union when it joined in 1986 was invested in infrastructure, including the railway system.

Accidents on the country's high-speed tracks have been relatively few and far between. The last time Spain saw a comparable disaster was in 1972, when a crash in the south of the country killed 86 people. More recently, in 2006, a subway train derailed in the city of Valencia, killing 43.

"Let's hope they find out what happened and the reasons for it," said Mar Nogueira as she watched emergency teams work at the accident site from a nearby bridge. "This mustn't happen again — here or anywhere else."

The train's driver, named by Spanish media as Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, has been placed under formal investigation by the judge probing the crash. Authorities say that the speed at which the train was traveling — 190 kilometers per hour (118 miles per hour), according to some reports — was more than double the 80 km per hour limit for that section of track.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is himself from Santiago de Compostela, said a legal probe would be opened alongside the technical investigation to discover the causes of the crash.

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Rajoy was among those who praised the city's people for how they responded to the tragedy. Some people who lived nearby smashed the windows of crashed carriages to try to pull survivors from the wreckage. Others brought blankets and food to injured passengers and the emergency workers.

King Juan Carlos, who visited the accident site Thursday, said Galicians had shown their "civic spirit."

"We Galicians are like that, we help when we can," said Manuel Fernandez, who lives in Santiago de Compostela.

"The sad thing is, this year people won't remember July 24 as the eve of the feast of Saint James — they'll remember it as the day of the accident."