The driver of a Spanish train that derailed causing the deaths of 78 people is being investigated for "recklessness," police said Friday, as a Virginia mother who died was remembered as "very sweet."
A judge in Santiago de Compostela requested that police interview 52-year-old Francisco Jose Garzon, as investigators focused on excessive speed as the cause of the accident, one of Europe’s worst rail disasters.
Security video showed the eight-car train derailing after speeding around a tight curve, hitting a wall with such force that one car caught fire and another mounted an embankment and came to rest on a nearby road.
In the moments after the crash, the driver told train operator's emergency service: "I should've been going 80 [49 mph] and I was doing 190 [118 mph]," according to a report in El Pais the newspaper. NBC News could not confirm the report.
Regional police chief Jaime Iglesias said Garzon was being treated as a suspect, The Associated Press reported, but he added they had not yet been able to question him because of unspecified injuries he sustained in the crash. Garzon was under a police guard at a hospital.
Iglesias said Garzon was being investigated for criminal behavior in causing the accident and "recklessness," Reuters reported.
A spokeswoman for the supreme court in the Galicia region told the news service that Garzon had not yet been charged and evidence including the train's "black box" was being assembled.
"We're collecting elements to be used as evidence, videos, audios and all the technical work that is being done on the train," she said.
State train company Renfe said the driver was a 30-year veteran of the firm with more than a decade of train driving experience.
His Facebook account included a March 2012 picture he had taken showing a cab speedometer marking 124 mph, according to El Pais.
Ninety-five of the injured were still being treated in hospitals Friday, 32 of them, including four children, in a serious condition. Police revised the death toll downward from 80 to 78 on Friday.
As workers removed the last of the blackened, twisted cars from the scene Friday, survivors told of the horrifying moment when the train, packed with people heading to Galicia for a regional holiday, left the tracks.
"It was like a scene from hell,” 18-year-old Mormon missionary Stephen Ward, from Utah, told the U.K.'s The Daily Telegraph from his hospital bed in Spain. “I thought I was dreaming. There was blood everywhere, my own and other people's. And bodies were being carried out … Some were already dead and others looked like they were about to die."
Among the dead was American Ana-Maria Cordoba, 47, who worked for the Catholic church as a benefits specialist for the Arlington Diocese in Virginia, just outside Washington D.C., NBCWashington.com reported.
"She was very well-liked... [and] very helpful. She had a deep faith and was so very sweet,” diocese spokesman Michael Donahue said.
Cordoba was traveling with her husband and daughter, who were both listed in stable condition at a local hospital.
American crash victim Ana Maria Cordoba was traveling with her husband and daughter.
They were among many Catholic passengers bound for Santiago de Compostela for the city’s annual St James festival, which had been due to take place Thursday.
A State Department official confirmed she had died, saying “we extend our deepest condolences to her loved ones.”
Among the American survivors were Robert and Myrta Fariza of Houston, Texas, who had been on their way to their daughter's wedding.
Robert Fariza said their car flipped over. "It became chaos, things flew and everything, it was sudden darkness and I was kind of thrown on one side of the train and that's why I'm kind of all kinds of beaten up here, and my wife, unfortunately, she was sitting on the side where the train flipped over, so everything kind of fell on her," he said.
"There were dead people everywhere, unfortunately, and right next to me there was a young man who had died right there.”
As Spain absorbed the aftermath of Wednesday night’s crash, stories emerged of heroism during the rescue effort – and heart-break as relatives waited in hospital for news of their loved ones.
Newspaper La Voz De Galicia reported that local resident Abel Rivas, 29, had been hailed a hero after carrying a number of victims from the mangled wreck, including a five-year-old girl.
He acted “instinctively,” he told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, El Pais gave an account of how a simple wedding ring had reunited a distraught couple with their seriously injured daughter, who survived the crash.
It said the couple had been waiting to meet Veronica Martinez Vazquez, 39, less than three miles up the track at Santiago de Compostela station.
When news of the accident broke, the couple spent more than 12 hours calling every local hospital, as well as the sports center that was used as a temporary morgue, but could find no news about their daughter.
Eventually one hospital said it had a female patient in a coma, whose injuries were so bad she could only be described by her gender, height, approximate age and that she was wearing an engraved ring.
The couple said a hospital doctor told them the inscription on the ring was "Finisterre, 2012" – which they immediately recognized as the time and place of Veronica’s wedding.
President Barack Obama said Thursday that he and his wife Michelle were “shocked and saddened” by the derailment.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published July 26 2013, 10:21 PM