Some passengers were sleeping, but others were standing in the aisle waiting to get off when their high-speed train derailed, toppling into a ditch "like a roller coaster" and slamming into another train. At least 70 people died and more than 400 were injured.
China reacted swiftly to its worst train accident in a decade, sending top officials and soldiers to Zibo, the site of Monday's pre-dawn crash in eastern China's Shandong province, and sacking two railway officials.
Authorities were quoted as saying that human error was to blame. The official Xinhua News Agency also said one of the trains was traveling too fast.
The crash occurred when a train headed from Beijing to the coastal city of Qingdao — site of the sailing competition during the Olympics in August — derailed and hit a second passenger train just before dawn. Nine of the first train's carriages were knocked into a dirt ditch, Railway Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said in a statement.
Security is tight near crash site
News photos showed rescuers pulling passengers from a rail car sitting on its side. Survivors bundled in white bed sheets from the sleeper cars stood or sat near the wreckage. The death toll could rise, with 70 people hospitalized in critical condition, according to Xinhua.
Security was tight on the outskirts of Zibo with roads to the crash site sealed by police and other nearby roads lined with paramilitary and police vehicles.
A total of 420 people were hurt, Xinhua said. No foreigners were among the dead. Injured survivors included four French nationals, a coach from China's national sailing team and a 3-year-old boy.
Some 1,000 soldiers and armed police were sent to the crash site to seal it off and help with the rescue work, Xinhua said. Heavy cranes were used to move the wrecked rail cars, and workers aimed to reopen the line. Officials seemed to be in a rush to get the line functioning again ahead of the May Day holiday weekend, when Chinese flock to resort cities like Qingdao.
Trains are the most popular way to travel in China, and the country's overloaded rail network carried 1.36 billion passengers last year. While accidents are rare, the government is trying to extend and upgrade the state-run rail network and introduce more high speed trains.
The second train, which had been headed from Yantai in Shandong to Xuzhou in eastern Jiangsu province, was knocked off its tracks but stayed upright.
'I suddenly felt the train ... topple '
"Most passengers were still asleep, but some were standing in the aisle waiting to get off at the Zibo railway station," one passenger surnamed Zhang told Xinhua.
"I suddenly felt the train, like a roller coaster, topple ... to one side and all the way to the other side. When it finally went off the tracks, many people fell on me," Zhang said.
Zhang, who was on the train from Beijing, was injured when the train fell into farmland beside the track. She said villagers used farm tools to smash train windows to pull out trapped passengers.
"I saw a girl who was trying to help her boyfriend out of the train, but he was dead," Zhang said.
Shandong is one of China's richest provinces with a population of around 93 million, a large manufacturing business, and thriving port at Qingdao.
A coach of China's sailing team, Hu Weidong, was seriously injured, Dr. Zhang Jun, head of the orthopedics department at the Zibo Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, was quoted as saying.
The doctor said a 3-year-old boy, Liu Jinhang, was probably the youngest person injured. He was in stable condition after being treated for a broken arm.
Scrambling for safety
A 38-year-old woman told Xinhua that she and her daughter, 13, escaped unhurt by scrambling through a huge crack in the floor of their carriage.
Xinhua said investigators had ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash. Its English report said it was human error, while its Chinese-language report attributed the crash to negligence.
It also said the Beijing train was traveling 82 mph at the time of the crash, over the speed limit of 50 mph, citing investigators.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao issued directives urging an all-out rescue effort, Xinhua said, and Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang and Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun were immediately sent to oversee the rescue operation.
Both the director of the Railway Bureau in Jinan, the provincial capital and nearest big city, and the bureau's Communist Party Secretary, were fired after the crash, Xinhua said, and they face an investigation by the Ministry of Railways.
It was the second major railway accident in Shandong this year. In January, 18 people died when a train hurtling through the night at more than 75 mph slammed into a group of about 100 workers doing track maintenance near the city of Anqiu.
According to the 163.com news Web site, Monday's was the worst train accident in China since 1997, when a collision killed 126 people.