A train that derailed and killed 41 people in Spain’s worst subway accident was traveling at twice the normal speed, a government official said Tuesday.
The train’s excessive speed has led officials to believe the driver had either fainted or become otherwise indisposed before it derailed and overturned inside an underground tunnel in the Mediterranean port of Valencia on Monday, said Jose Ramon Garcia Anton, Valencia’s regional transport minister.
The train was traveling at 50 mph, rather than the average 25 mph at the curved section where it derailed, Garcia Anton said.
He said neither the train nor the tracks had suffered any kind of mechanical failure before the derailment, denying initial reports that a wheel had broken.
“There was an excess of speed at some point,” the minister said in the first government news conference about the accident.
He said the driver, who died, was fully qualified and been on the job since April after undergoing more than 250 hours of training.
Justice Ministry official Rosa Sanchez told The Associated Press that five of the dead were foreign nationals from Argentina, Bulgaria, Colombia, Paraguay and Venezuela. One of the dead has not yet been identified, Sanchez said. Forty-seven people were injured.
The city in eastern Spain, meanwhile, suddenly turned from preparing a festive visit of the pope to mourning its dead.
A funeral service at Valencia’s cathedral was attended by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and other national and regional dignitaries. Families of the victims were applauded as they entered the cathedral.
At a noontime vigil, residents of observed five minutes of silence in memory of the victims.
‘Hearts in Valencia’
Traffic stopped, construction workers paused and government officials stood grim-faced during the observance. A plaza outside the headquarters of the Valencia regional government swelled with hundreds of people.
“Spaniards’ hearts are in Valencia,” Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said after attending the ceremony. She said the accident had shocked the whole country and that support from other Spaniards should help Valencia “get through and overcome these bitter moments.”
Politicians and workers at the Spanish parliament in Madrid stepped outside to join in the remembrance, as did people at Zapatero’s office complex in the Spanish capital.
A bouquet of red and white carnations lay outside the Jesus station where the accident occurred, and several candles burned. Traffic came to a halt along streets lining the plaza, and construction workers on balconies overlooking it paused to take part.
Relatives gathered at a morgue to claim the bodies of their loved ones.
“I have lost my niece Laura,” said Jose Lopez. “She never took the metro, she always used her car. But she had some paperwork to do and she must have thought that it was better to go by metro. And look how it turned out.”
Lopez, 68, said the family learned of his niece’s fate Monday night, hours after the accident. He said she had been missing for most of the day but “we never suspected that she was even in the accident.”
“The family is destroyed. You can only imagine,” he said.
Pope pays tribute
Garcia Anton described the scene inside the subway tunnel as “alarming, a pile of twisted steel, bent and destroyed carriages, broken glass and bent doors.”
Authorities ruled out terrorism as the cause, but the accident brought back memories of the 2004 bombings of Madrid commuter trains that killed 191 people. Rescue workers hustled bloodied, sooty survivors from the tunnel.
The accident occurred shortly after 1 p.m. as many people packed subway trains to head home for lunch. It was the second accident on Valencia’s No. 1 line in less than a year. A September collision involving three trains injured at least 30 people, four of them seriously.
Pope Benedict XVI, who was to arrive in Valencia on Saturday for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Meeting of the Families, prayed for the victims and “has followed with pain ... the dramatic reports,” the Vatican said.
Hundreds of thousands of people were traveling to Valencia for the meeting, but organizers called off all festive celebrations that had been planned for the Pope’s visit.