Driver of train in fatal Spanish derailment detained

Veteran at the controls posted speed feats online but now silent

AFP-JIJI, AP

Spanish police said Friday they had detained the driver of a speeding train that hurtled off the tracks in the nation’s deadliest rail accident in decades, accusing him of criminal recklessness.

The country was in mourning over Wednesday’s tragedy, which police said had killed 78 people, including several foreigners, and injured more than 100.

The 52-year-old driver faces criminal accusations, including “recklessness” over the crash near the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela, said Jaime Iglesias, police chief in the northwestern Galicia region.

The train was said to have been traveling at more than twice the speed limit when it hurtled off the tracks and slid into a concrete wall.

The gray-haired driver, who reportedly boasted of his love for speed online, was detained Thursday in a hospital where he had been under police surveillance, Iglesias told a news conference.

A Spanish judge had ordered police to question the man, identified as Francisco Jose Garzon Amo in local media, which published photographs of him after the crash.

He has not been charged with a crime because he is still being treated for unspecified injuries suffered in the crash. However a police spokesman later said Amo had refused to respond to police questioning Friday and that the case would now be passed to the courts.

Spanish newspaper El Pais said the driver of the train — which was carrying more than 200 passengers and crew members — was unable to brake in time.

Five of the dead have yet to be identified.

The foreigners who died were an American, an Algerian, a Mexican, a Brazilian and a Venezuelan, police said. Santiago de Compostela City Hall said a French national was believed to be among the dead but this has not been confirmed.

Most of the injured are Spanish, but at least eight were from Argentina, Britain, Colombia, the United States and Peru.

A memorial service for the victims is scheduled to be held at Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral Monday night.

The number of people still in the hospital dropped to 81, including three children, Galician Health Minister Rocio Mosquera said.

The driver, while still trapped in his cab, told railway officials by radio that the train had taken the curve at 190 kph, unidentified investigation sources told El Pais — more than double the 80 kph speed limit on that section of track.

“I was going at 190! I hope no one died, because it will weigh on my conscience,” he was quoted as saying.

He has been with state rail company Renfe for 30 years, including 13 as a driver.

Media reports described Amo, one of two drivers on the train, as a speed freak who once gleefully posted a picture on his Facebook page of a train speedometer reading 200 kph. A caption said: “I am on the edge, I can’t go faster or else I will be fined.” Spanish newspapers quoted another of his posts as saying: “What fun it would be to race the Guardia Civil (police) and pass them, causing their radar to blow up hehehe. What a huge fine that would be for Renfe.” The Facebook page has since been taken down.

Rafael Catala, secretary of state for transport, said the crash “seems to be linked to excessive speed” but that he was awaiting the findings of the judicial probe.

Renfe said the train — a model able to adapt between high-speed and normal tracks — had no technical problems and had just passed an inspection on the morning of the accident.

Experts have raised questions about the track’s speed signaling system. Since high-speed trains use the route, it has been equipped with an automatic speed control system known as the European Rail Traffic Management System, which can trigger a train’s brakes automatically if it is speeding.

But the secretary general of Spain’s train drivers’ union, Juan Jesus Garcia Fraile, told public radio the system was not in place at the crash site.

Gonzalo Ferre, president of Adif, Spain’s railway agency, said the driver should have started slowing the train 4 km before the dangerous bend, which appears immediately after a tunnel. He said signs clearly marked this point.

Renfe, described Amo as an experienced driver who knew the Madrid-Santiago route well.

An American passenger, Stephen Ward, said he was watching the train’s speed on a carriage display screen and saw it accelerate, not slow, as it headed for disaster.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a native of Santiago de Compostela, declared three days of national mourning after visiting the scene Thursday.