Spain official says 13 summer solstice train crash victims caused their own deaths

By Joseph Wilson, AP
Friday, June 25, 2010

Spain blames victims in train crash that killed 13

MADRID — Spanish officials blamed summer solstice partygoers for crossing the tracks into the path of an express train that killed at least 13, but others said a new underground exit was poorly marked and an old crossing was blocked off, leaving travelers confused.

In addition to the dead, at least 14 were injured in the beach resort of Castelldefels, south of Barcelona, shortly before midnight Wednesday as about 700 young people left a train heading for bonfires on a Mediterranean beach.

Most jammed the underpass leading to the beach, but about 30 climbed down from the platform and tried to scurry across the tracks, ending up mangled by a train barreling through the station in northeastern Spain.

Authorities said Friday that a team of 12 train security officers assigned for station crowd control arrived at the scene of carnage just five minutes too late to try to prevent the tragedy.

The job they had been assigned was to manage the crowds as they returned home from the beach party, and no extra staff were on hand to guide arriving partiers, said an official with the national rail company RENFE who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with policy.

Most of the victims were Latin American immigrants. Of the nine fatal victims identified by Friday, five were Ecuadorean, two were Bolivian and two were Colombian, said Montserrat Tura, justice minister of the regional government of Catalonia where Barcelona is the capital.

Development Minister Jose Blanco denied claims the underpass was poorly marked, and insisted that passengers should have known that “you never, never, never cross the tracks.”

“Everything pointed to negligence,” Blanco added, saying he hoped the tragedy would make riders understand that they must obey station rules.

But Arrellano Ruiz, the Ecuadorean consul in Barcelona, said passengers did not see the signs for the underpass exit and mistakenly headed to an overpass that had been closed since a 2009 renovation.

Victor Morlan, Spain’s infrastructure secretary, acknowledged that the overpass has been blocked off since last year but insisted there were enough signs telling passengers how to safely reach the beach and that a loudspeaker service had warnings for passengers not to cross the tracks.

The express train as it approached sounded a warning signal that was the last thing the victims heard.

Spain’s deadliest train accident since 2003 occurred during a nationwide ritual called Noche de San Juan, or the night of St. John, which is held each June 23 just after the summer solstice. People light bonfires in town squares and on beaches, dance around them, drink beer, barbecue food and set off fireworks.

Spanish news agency Europa Press quoted unnamed RENFE officials as saying the express train was traveling at 87 mph (139 kph) and the driver tested negative for alcohol. RENFE refused to confirm or deny the report.

Spain’s worst previous train accident came in 2003, when 19 people died in a collision between passenger and freight trains in the southeastern town of Chinchilla.

Associated Press Writer Daniel Woolls contributed to this story from Madrid.

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