Train driver faces homicide suspicion

NICOLE PRYOR, YESICA FISCH AND CIARAN GILES
Last updated 00:00 28/07/2013
Reuters

Spanish newspapers identify the driver of a high-speed train that crashed on Wednesday evening, killing at least 78 people.

Train derails in Spain
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Rescue workers pull victims from the wreckage of the train, which crashed near Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

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Spain's interior minister says the driver whose speeding train crashed, killing 78 people, is now being held on suspicion of negligent homicide.

Minister of Interior Jorge Fernandez Diaz announced the step against Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, who previously had been detained on suspicion of recklessness.

The minister also says that Garzon has been discharged from the hospital and taken to a police station.

The driver  is still in the hospital and won't appear before a judge as hoped, delaying a hotly awaited opportunity for his official explanation for Spain's deadliest crash in decades.

Blame has increasingly fallen on the driver, with the country's railway agency saying it was his responsibility to brake before going into the high-risk curve where the train tumbled off the rails and smashed into a wall.

But it's still not clear whether the brakes failed or were never used, and the driver has remained silent so far.

Francisco Jose Garzon Amo remains under arrest in the hospital on suspicion of recklessness. A blood-soaked Garzon was photographed Wednesday being escorted away from the wreckage, at first by civilians who had hurried to the scene of the accident and then by police, but it is not clear just what his medical status is.

Unconfirmed media reports said that Garzon had injured ribs.

The justice department had said that Garzon would likely testify before a judge Saturday, but said in a statement it intended now to wait until the 52-year-old is able to appear in court rather than having a judge come to his hospital bedside.

He had been expected to give a preliminary statement to judicial police as early as Thursday, but that process was delayed, reportedly due to health reasons.

In Wednesday's crash, the train's eight carriages packed with 218 passengers blazed far over the speed limit into a curve and violently tipped over. Diesel fuel powering the engine sent flames coursing through some cabins.

The president of Adif, the Spanish rail agency, said that the driver should have started slowing the train 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) before the dangerous bend. He said signs clearly marked this point when the driver must begin to slow.

Normally, police take a first statement that is then examined by an investigating judge who must then take testimony within 72 hours of the arrest. That deadline is Sunday, suggesting that Garzon will make some sort of declaration before a judge then.

Although the court hearing would be closed, it would give hints about the status of the investigation. The judge would decide whether to jail the driver as an official suspect, release him on bail, or release him without charges. If a judge finds sufficient evidence for a criminal trial, the suspect will be charged and a trial date set.

WHAT DO I DO?

The driver  had said he "f****d up" and wanted to die.

Transcripts of what he said just after the crash had been revealed as driver Francisco Jose Garzon Amo readied to be questioned, reported The Sun.

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The Sun reported sources as saying Garzon radioed officials just prior to the crash to tell them: "I'm 190(kmh)."

The bend had a speed limit of 80kmh.

Garzon pleaded to the train's control room when he realised how big the crash was, Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported.

"I've derailed. What do I do? What am I supposed to do? I f****d up. I want to die," he said.

"We're only human! We're only human! I hope there are no dead, because this will fall on my conscience."

Police seized the train's recording devices to shed light on why it was speeding at almost 194kmh on a 80kmh curve where it derailed.

Only months before the accident, Garzon had been gloating about his speeding.

A picture from March was found on his Facebook page of a train speedometer at 200kmh. It was captioned: "What joy it would be to get level with the police and then go past them making their speed guns go off. Ha ha!"

The train, operated by state-owned company Renfe, was built by Bombardier and Talgo and was about five years old. It had almost the maximum number of passengers.

One local official described the aftermath of the crash, on the eve of one of Europe's biggest Christian festivals in the ancient city, as like a scene from hell, with bodies strewn next to the tracks.

The impact was so huge one carriage flew several metres into the air and landed on the other side of the high concrete barrier.

'A SUSPECT FOR RECKLESSNESS'

As suspicion increasingly fell on the driver in Spain's worst train crash in decades, authorities also located the "black box" that is expected to shed further light on the disaster.

Investigators have opened a probe into possible failings by the 52-year-old driver and the train's internal speed-regulation systems in the derailment. The railway defended the driver today, saying he had an "exhaustive" understanding of the rail line.

In an interview with The Associated Press, an American passenger injured on the train said he saw on a TV monitor screen inside his car that the train was traveling 194kmh (121mph) seconds before the crash - far above the 80kph (50mph) speed limit on the curve where it derailed.

At the scene, crews used a crane to hoist smashed and burned-up cars and were loading them onto flat-bed big-rigs to cart them away. The shattered front engine sat just off the tracks, as passenger train services chugged close by.

Grieving families gathered for funerals near the site of the crash in Santiago de Compostela, a site of Catholic pilgrimage preparing to celebrate its most revered saint.

Santiago officials had been preparing for the city's festival but cancelled it and took control of the city's main indoor sports arena to use as a makeshift morgue. Police lowered the death toll from 80 to 78 as forensic scientists there matched body parts.

Spain's Renfe rail company said Garzon was a 30-year employee of the state rail company who became an assistant driver in 2000 and a fully qualified driver in 2003.

Garzon Amo had driven trains past the spot of the accident 60 times and "the knowledge of this line that he had to have is exhaustive", Julio Gomez-Pomar, president of Spain's Renfe rail company, said in a TV interview.

Police were still working to identify what they believe are the remains of six people, and the death toll count could change as they continue their work matching body parts, said Antonio del Amo, the police chief in charge of the scientific service for Spain's National Police.

Iglesias said police took possession of the train's "black box" which is expected to shed light on why it was going faster than the speed limit. The box will be handed over to the investigating judge, Iglesias said, adding that the box had not been opened yet.

The box records the train's trip data, including speed, distances and braking, and is similar to a flight recorder for an airplane. A court spokeswoman declined comment on how long analysis of the box's contents would take.

An American victim was identified by the Diocese of Arlington as Ana Maria Cordoba, an administrative employee from northern Virginia. Also among the dead were an Algerian and a Mexican, Spanish police said on Friday (local time).

Eyewitness accounts backed by security-camera footage of the moment of disaster showed that the eight-carriage train was going too fast as it tried to turn left underneath a road bridge. After impact, witnesses said a fire engulfed passengers trapped in at least one carriage, most likely driven by ruptured tanks of diesel fuel carried in the forward engines.

Stephen Ward, 18-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah who was on the train, said he was writing in his journal when he looked up at the monitor and saw the train's speed. Then, he said, "the train lifted up off the track. It was like a roller coaster."

Seconds later, Ward remembered, a backpack fell from the rack above him and he felt the train fly off the track. That was his last memory before he blacked out on impact.

When Ward woke up, someone was helping him walk out of his train car and crawl out of a ditch where the car had toppled over. He thought he was dreaming for 30 seconds until he felt his blood-drenched face and noticed 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."

It was Spain's deadliest train accident since 1972, when a train collided with a bus in southwest Spain, killing 86 people and injuring 112.

Stuff.co.nz, AP

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