DIGNE-LES-BAINS – Two women were killed when a massive falling boulder hit a passing train in the French Alps on Saturday, leaving one of its carriages dangling precariously off a steep, snow-covered embankment.
Eight people were injured in the accident, which took place as the train traveled from the scenic coastal city of Nice to the popular tourist town of Digne-les-Bains along a narrow, winding, and sometimes breathtakingly steep track.
A Russian woman was killed as well as a woman living in the Alps region, said local prosecutor Stephane Kellenberger, adding that 34 people had been on board.
Both victims were in their seventies.
Witnesses said an enormous boulder struck the train, violently throwing one of its two carriages off the track. Images of the accident show the carriage hanging off the edge of a ravine, with a large crater in its side as the other teeters on the edge.
“It was as if the boulder fell from the sky, like in an earthquake,” said traveler Jean-Jacques Messaoud, 47, who said he had seen a victim bleeding heavily.
Another passenger, Floriane Bonnet, was relaxing at the back of the train when the accident happened.
“I didn’t understand, I was thrown to the left and I saw the first half of the train go down the embankment. I tried to break a window but couldn’t manage it so I left through the front.”
Another woman was rushed to hospital in critical condition and seven others were lightly injured, according to local authorities. Rescuers had earlier reported nine people injured.
Firefighters from around the mountainous region were brought in to help in the rescue operation in the remote and mountainous area, which is difficult to access because of the snow.
A total of 110 firefighters and 32 vehicles were deployed, as well as two helicopters.
The railway, known as the Train des Pignes (Pine Cone Train), is hugely popular with tourists, taking them on a picturesque 151-km journey from the sea to the mountains of Haute-Provence.
Over 100 years old, the railway crosses some 30 bridges and viaducts and 25 tunnels through valleys and gorges on an often hair-raising journey at up to 1,000 meters above sea level.
The train’s name is said to come from the fact that it was so slow it allowed travelers to get off and pick up pine cones from the side of the tracks.
Others believe it was so named because pine cones were used as tinder to fire up the old steam engine when the line was opened in 1911.
French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier was due to visit the scene of the accident on Saturday afternoon.
In July last year an intercity train derailed as it sped through a station about 25 km south of Paris, leaving seven dead.