Image: Collapsed house in Viareggio
Marco Vasini  /  AP
Rescuers walk by the rubble of a collapsed house in Viareggio, Italy, after a freight train exploded Tuesday near the coastal town's station.
updated 6/30/2009 3:27:04 PM ET 2009-06-30T19:27:04

Elia Quiroz was about to go to bed in his home near the railroad station in this Tuscan seaside town when the train rumbled by. His kitchen table started shaking.

"Then I heard an explosion and I went outside," the 32-year-old Italian recalled. "I saw flames as high as 30, 40 meters, and I ran."

A gas-filled train derailed while traveling through a downtown neighborhood around midnight Monday, catching residents in their sleep, and setting off a massive explosion that killed at least 14 people and injured dozens of others, most with severe burns.

Death toll figures seesawed on Tuesday, but the Civil Protection eventually put the official count at 14 dead and three missing after the body of a woman was found in her crumbled home. Some 35 of the 50 injured had suffered severe burns.

As rescuers searched through the rubble for survivors, unions and consumer groups denounced what they said is the poor safety record and aging infrastructure of Italy's rail system and questioned sending highly explosive cargo through an inhabited area.

'Ball of fire'
The 14-car train was traveling from the northern city of La Spezia to Pisa when part of the convoy derailed as it passed Viareggio's station.

A car filled with liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, sprung a leak and all it took then was a spark to cause an explosion that collapsed five buildings and set fire to a vast area. Homes crumbled or burned, killing residents as they slept.

"We saw a ball of fire rising up to the sky," said witness Gianfranco Bini, who lives in a building overlooking the station. "We heard three big rumbles, like bombs. It looked like war had broken out."

Image: A firefighter sprays water on the wrecked cars of a freight train in Viareggio, Italy
Fabrizio Giovannozzi  /  AP
A firefighter sprays water on the wrecked cars of a freight train in Viareggio, Italy, on Tuesday.

His son, Gianni Bini, said he saw a truck driver running away on fire.

"This truck was passing by ... when it was hit by the heat wave and I saw the driver ablaze, getting off and walking away" in a daze, he said.

Videos uploaded onto YouTube showed a huge plume of fire and smoke towering above Viareggio's low houses. An inferno raged through the night, consuming buildings and cars, while the sound of sirens and explosions pierced the air. TV images showed residents, their bodies blackened by the smoke, being carried away on stretchers.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed his "participation in the pain striking the whole town" and said in a telegram of condolences he was praying for the victims.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's center-right premier, traveled to Viareggio to take charge of the situation and was greeted with boos and cries of "go home" as he arrived at the town's municipality. Tuscany is usually a left-leaning region of Italy.

Gas explosion
About 100 people had lost their homes and a total of 1,000 were evacuated as a precaution, said Viareggio Mayor Luca Lunardini.

As some 300 firefighters extinguished the blaze, teams specialized in dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical threats were brought in to prevent the other gas tanks from exploding.

Some of the victims, including a child, were killed at home, said Raffaele Gargiulo, a police spokesman for the nearby city of Lucca, which is in charge of Viareggio. Two drivers on the road alongside the tracks were also killed.

Others suffered severe burns and died at the hospital.

"The condition of the bodies is such that it will be very difficult to identify them," Gargiulo said.

It was Italy's deadliest train accident since January 2005, when 17 people were killed in a head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train. The collision occurred in thick fog on a single track line near Bologna in northern Italy, and led to calls for improved train safety.

Dangerous cargo
Berlusconi said at a news conference that Monday's tragedy was caused by the breakage of a wheel axis of one the gas cars.

The train's two engineers were lightly injured. While being questioned in the hospital, they said they felt an impact some 650 feet outside the station, shortly before part of the train flew off the tracks, Gargiulo said.

The ADUC consumer group said the train should never have traveled on that line, and blamed Italy's old railroad lines and their limited number for the disaster.

"How is it possible that such a dangerous cargo could travel through such an important station and an inhabited area?" the groups said in a statement.

The union of Italy's rail engineers called for greater checks on train cars that are registered abroad, like the ones involved in the crash.

Cause under investigation
Italy's state-run railways company said in a statement the first car appeared to derail and explode, pulling another four cars with it. The cars came from Poland and Germany and were driven by a locomotive of the Italian railways Trenitalia.

GATX Rail Europe, which is based in Vienna, said it owns the rail cars. CFO Werner Mitteregger added he did not have any details on what caused the accident.

He said a company representative has been sent to Viareggio to gather information. He had no immediate comment on the state or age of the rail cars, saying they were still trying to identify them.

EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani called on EU countries to step up safety checks of Europe's rail transport sector, which is increasingly run by private operators.

Italy's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni said it was too early to draw conclusions on the crash.

"Once the causes will be clear we will act at an Italian or European level to ensure such accidents don't happen again," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Train explosion in Italy

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  1. As seen from the air, a freight train seen in Viareggio, Italy on Tuesday. The train derailed and plowed into houses in a small Italian town, setting off an explosion and fire that killed at least 12 people many as they slept in their homes and injured at least 50. (Italian firefighters via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, center, checks with civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso as a rail tanker car lies on its side after a derailment and explosion in Viareggio, on Tuesday. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Burnt-out cars stand outside the Viareggio train station after a derailed train exploded in the middle of the night. The train was carrying a cargo of liquified petroleum gas and the crash caused a massive explosion which engulfed nearby residential homes. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Emergency workers at the scene of a freight train which derailed and exploded in the northern Italian town of Viareggio on Monday. Seven of the victims died when the wagons jumped the tracks and crashed into several homes. There are fears some people may be trapped under the rubble. (Carlo Ferraro / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Rescuers and paramilitary police officers walk amidst the rubble of damaged houses in Viareggio. A train car filled with liquefied natural gas exploded after it left the tracks, sparking an inferno that raged through a residential neighborhood beside the train station in the Tuscan seaside town. (Marco Vasini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Firefighters examine the scene after a freight train derailed in the seaside resort of Viareggio, Italy, on June 30. The blast collapsed at least five buildings and set fire to a vast area, killing some residents as they slept. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A man sits on a camp bed in a tent after being evacuated from his home in Viareggio, Italy, on July 30. (Lorenzo Galassi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rescuers work amid the rubble of a collapsed house in Viareggio, Italy, on July 30. Witness Gianfranco Bini, who lives in a building overlooking the train station, said he saw "a ball of fire rising up to the sky." (Fabrizio Giovannozzi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A rescue worker holds a picture of two children he found in a collapsed house in Viareggio, Italy, on July 30. Officials said the death toll might increase as 300 firefighters and other rescue teams searched through the rubble. (Fabrizio Giovannozzi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Teams which specialize in dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical threats were sent to Viareggio, Italy, on July 30 to prevent the other gas tanks from exploding, officials said. (Franco Silvi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Guido Bertolaso, the chief of the Civil Protection Department, called the accident in Viareggio, Italy, one of the country's worst railway tragedies. (Marco Bucco / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. TV images showed residents, their bodies blackened by the smoke, being carried away on stretchers in Viareggio, Italy, on June 30. Firefighters said 10 buildings and dozens of cars were at least partially burned. (Riccardo Dalle Luche / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Flames engulf the area where a freight train derailed and and exploded in Viareggio, Italy, on June 30. (Riccardo Dalle Luche / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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