By Teresa Medrano and Miguel Vidal
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain (Reuters) – A train derailed outside the ancient northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday night, on the eve of a major religious festival, killing at least 78 people and injuring up to 131 in one of Europe’s worst rail disasters.
In what one local official described as a scene from hell, bodies covered in blankets lay next to the overturned carriages as smoke billowed from the wreckage after the disaster.
Firefighters clambered desperately over the twisted metal trying to get survivors out of the windows, while ambulances and fire engines surrounded the scene. Cranes were still pulling out mangled debris on Thursday morning, 12 hours after the crash.
The government said it was working on the assumption the derailment was an accident.
One official source said speeding was a likely cause of the derailment, which occurred as the train reached a curve in the track, but the public works minister said it was too early to draw conclusions on what had happened.
El Pais newspaper cited sources close to the investigation as saying the train was travelling at over twice the speed limit on a sharp curve and Santiago’s mayor said the train was probably going too fast.
“We heard a massive noise and we went down the tracks. I helped getting 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, a 47-year old baker from Santiago de Compostela, told Reuters.
The Santiago de Compostela train operated by state rail company Renfe, which had 247 people on board, derailed as the city prepared for the renowned festival of Saint James, when thousands of Christian pilgrims from across the world pack the streets.
The city’s tourism board said all festivities, including the traditional High Mass at the centuries-old cathedral, had been cancelled as the city went into mourning following the crash.
Passenger Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station the train approached the curve at high speed, twisted and wagons piled up one on top of the other.
“A lot of people were squashed on the bottom. We tried to squeeze out of the bottom of the wagons to get out and we realized the train was burning. … I was in the second wagon and there was fire. … I saw corpses,” he said.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was born in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia region, visited the site on Thursday morning. He was due to go to the main hospital later in the day and hold an emergency meeting with local authorities.
“In the face of a tragedy such as just happened in Santiago de Compostela on the eve of its big day, I can only express my deepest sympathy as a Spaniard and a Galician,” he said in a written statement late on Wednesday.
Both Renfe and state-owned Adif, which is in charge of the tracks, had opened an investigation into the cause of the derailment, Renfe said.
The official source said no statement would be made regarding the cause until the black boxes of the train were examined, but said it was most likely an accident.
“We are moving away from the hypothesis of sabotage or attack,” he said. “It’s too early to be 100 percent sure but speeding is a likely cause for the accident.”
Santiago mayor Angel Curras told Cadena Ser radio: “It seems the speed of the train was likely not the right one.”
Clinics in Santiago de Compostela were overwhelmed with people flocking to give blood, while hotels organized free rooms for relatives. Madrid sent forensic scientists and hospital staff to the scene on special flights.
The death toll was 78, a spokeswoman for Galicia’s Supreme Court said, adding that the figures were still provisional. Judges in Spain are responsible for recording deaths.
Up to 131 people were injured, a Galicia-based spokeswoman for the office of the central government said earlier.
“The scene is shocking, it’s Dante-esque,” said the head of the surrounding Galicia region, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, in a radio interview. He said he had declared seven days of official mourning in the Galicia region.
NO BUDGET CUTS
The disaster stirred memories of a train bombing in Madrid in 2004, carried out by Islamist militants, that killed 191 people, although officials do not appear to suspect an attack this time.
Spain is struggling to emerge from a long-running recession marked by government-driven austerity to bring its deeply indebted finances into order.
But Adif, the state railways infrastructure company, told Reuters no budget cuts had been implemented on maintenance of the line, which connects La Coruna, Santiago de Compostela and Ourense and was inaugurated in 2011.
It said more than 100 million euros a year were being spent on track maintenance in Spain.
Firefighters called off a strike to help with the disaster, while hospital staff, many operating on reduced salaries because of spending cuts, worked overtime to tend the injured.
The city’s festival focuses on St James, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, whose remains are said to rest there and who is patron saint of Galicia.
The apostle’s shrine is the destination of the famous El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across the Pyrenees, which has been followed by Christians since the Middle Ages.
Wednesday’s derailment was one of the worst rail accidents in Europe over the past 25 years.
In November 2000, 155 people were killed when a fire in a tunnel engulfed a funicular train packed with skiers in Austria.
In Montenegro, up to 46 people were killed and nearly 200 injured in 2006 when a packed train derailed and plunged into a ravine outside the capital, Podgorica.
In Spain itself, 41 people were killed the same year when an underground train derailed and overturned in a tunnel just before entering the Jesus metro station in Valencia.
(Additional reporting by Inmaculada Sanz, Sonya Dowsett, Sarah White, Andres Gonzalez, Blanca Rodriguez, Julien Toyer, Emma Pinedo and Raquel Castillo; Writing by Sonya Dowsett and Julien Toyer; editing by Mike Collett-White and Barry Moody)