BRETIGNY-SUR-ORGE, FRANCE – A high-speed train derailed and hit a station platform just south of Paris on Friday, killing at least six people and injuring many more in France’s worst rail accident in 25 years.
French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said human error was not cause. Nearly 200 people were injured in the initial crash. But by Saturday morning, Cuvillier said only 30 people were still considered injured.
Witnesses said the site of the crash resembled “a war zone,” with one survivor describing walking over a decapitated body to escape an overturned carriage.
Rescuers searched overnight Friday for passengers who might still be trapped in the wreckage. There were 385 passengers on the train.
The train was a regional service heading from Paris to the west-central city of Limoges. It derailed as it passed through the station at Bretigny-sur-Orge, about 25 km south of Paris.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, speaking from the accident site late Friday, told reporters, “The toll is currently six dead, 30 injured, of whom eight are in a serious condition.”
The injured were all being treated in local hospitals, he added.
The head of the SNCF rail service, Guillaume Pepy, told reporters at the scene that six carriages had derailed. The train’s third and fourth carriages derailed first and the others followed, he added.
Clearly shaken, he expressed the rail company’s “solidarity with the victims and their families.”
“Rail catastrophes are something that upset everyone and all of those who are committed to our national rail service,” he said.
“We don’t yet know the reasons for this derailment,” Pepy said. The rail service, judicial authorities and France’s BEA safety agency will each be investigating.
Marc Cheutin, 57, who was aboard the train, said he had to “step over a decapitated person” after the accident to exit the carriage he had been traveling in.
“Shortly after departure, just as I was getting into my book, we felt a first shock that shook the carriage I was in. . . . Then there was a second shock and the carriage lifted up, then a third and a fourth and the carriage went over on its side,” he said.
Vianey Kalisa, a witness who had been waiting for a train at the station, said: “I saw a lot of wounded people, women and children trapped inside (the carriages).
“I was shaking like a child. People were screaming. One man’s face was covered in blood. It was a like a war zone.”
In the immediate aftermath, dazed survivors, some in blood-stained clothing, stood near mangled train wagons and the crushed remains of a station platform.
Alain Krakovitch, the director of security at SNCF, praised the quick reaction of the train driver.
“He felt jolts entering the station and applied the regulation measures in the space of a few seconds, which is to say a radio warning signal and a light warning signal,” thus stopping all traffic in the area.
His quick thinking avoided any collision with approaching trains, Krakovitch told reporters.
On Friday evening President Francois Hollande visited the scene and met with officials.
He confirmed that three investigations were under way, but added: “We should avoid unnecessary speculation. What happened will eventually be known and the proper conclusions will be drawn.”
Officials said the derailment happened at 5:14 p.m., minutes after the intercity train left Paris-Austerlitz station.
“The train arrived at the station at high speed. It split in two for an unknown reason. Part of the train continued to roll while the other was left on its side on the platform,” a police source said.
A source at SNCF added: “It was not a collision and it was not a problem with the speed.”
Cuvillier, who also visited the crash site, said the train was going 137 kph at the time of the crash, which is below the 150-kph limit for that part of the track.
Some 300 firefighters, 20 paramedic teams and eight helicopters were deployed to treat casualties at the scene and airlift the most seriously injured to nearby hospitals.
In total, 192 people were treated by emergency services, officials said.
The accident occurred as many in France were departing for the start of their summer holidays ahead of Bastille Day on Sunday.
The derailment was France’s worst rail accident since an SNCF commuter train crashed into a stationary train at Paris’ Gare de Lyon terminal in 1988. That accident left 56 people dead.