It is one of Europe's worst ever rail disasters. On Wednesday evening, a train jumped off the tracks just outside of the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday evening. As of Thursday morning, officials were saying that at least 78 people died and more than 140 were injured in the accident.
The disaster occurred at 8:42 p.m. on the eve of the ancient northwestern city's famous religious festival. The site was littered with wreckage form the twisted train cars along with dozens of bodies covered in white blankets. Firefighters on Wednesday night raced to evacuate the injured; an official said that four of the dead passed away after being taken to the hospital.
"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," said Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a statement. Rajoy was born in the city and plans to visit the site of the accident on Thursday morning.
Spanish rail operator Renfe said the train was carrying 247 people at the time of the crash, according to Reuters, and was coming from the capital Madrid. While officials have begun investigating the possible cause of the crash, they say that it is unlikely that sabotage or terrorism is to blame. Still, it is the most devastating disaster involving rail travel in the country since the train bombings carried out by Islamists in Madrid in which 191 people lost their lives.
According to the Spanish daily El Pais, the train may have been traveling much too fast for the curve around which it was traveling at the time. The paper reported on Thursday that it was going 190 kilometers per hour (120 mph) at the time of the crash instead of the 80 kmh limit on that stretch of track. The train involved was an Alvia long-distance fast train.
Eyewitnesses have reported scenes of chaos in the immediate aftermath of the accident as fire broke out in the engine and smoke began rising from some of the cars. "It was going so quickly," a passenger named Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station according to Reuters. "It seems that on a curve, the train started to twist, and the wagons piled up on top of each other. A lot of people were squashed at the bottom. We tried to squeeze out of the bottom of the wagons to get out and we realized the train was burning."
The city of Santiago de Compostela immediately cancelled all festivities relating to this week's festival of St. James. Tourists from around the world come to the city for the festival with many of them following parts of the St. James' Way pilgrimage route, which stretches across Europe and has its endpoint at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The traditional high mass at the cathedral was also cancelled as a result of the crash.
Investigators have declined to speculate on the cause of the crash, with one source telling AFP only that "we are moving away from the hypothesis of sabotage or attack." The train's "black boxes" still needed to be examined; they could provide valuable evidence into why the train derailed.
Pope Francis, currently in Brazil for World Youth Day, called for prayers for the victims, saying that he was with the families in their pain.