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Spain trial opens into 2013 train crash that killed 80

Nine years after a high-speed train crash that killed 80 people, a major trial opened Wednesday to determine responsibility in Spain’s worst rail disaster in almost eight decades.

Relatives of the victims, some in tears, trickled into a cultural centre which has been transformed into a courtroom to accommodate the many parties involved in the trial in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela.

Among them was Maria Angeles Prado, who lost her 21-year-old daughter and niece in the accident, Spain’s deadliest train tragedy since 1944.

“Today we feel tired, sad and angry, with the desire for this nightmare to end. We want to know finally everything that malfunctioned,” she told AFP before the start of the trial.

“They had gone to see a fireworks display. We told them: ‘Take the train, not the car’, thinking it was safer,” she added as she fought back tears.

“If the driver had done his job correctly, my daughter and her cousin would still be alive.”

On July 24, 2013, a train travelling from Madrid veered off the tracks as it hurtled round a sharp bend on the outskirts of Santiago, a city in the region of Galicia.

It ploughed into a concrete siding, leaving 80 people dead — including 12 foreigners — and over 140 injured.

The accident happened on the eve of the festival of St James, one of Jesus’s disciples, whose remains are said to rest in a Santiago shrine that draws huge numbers of pilgrims every year.

Thousands of people were in the city for the annual event, which was called off when officials declared a week of mourning.

– ‘Human error’ –

Two people have been charged with responsibility for the accident — the driver, Francisco Garzon, and the former safety director at state rail operator ADIF, Andres Cortabitarte.

Both are facing charges of “homicide due to gross professional negligence”.

Prosecutors are calling for each to face four years behind bars.

The victims’ families are claiming nearly 58 million euros ($57 million) in damages, court documents show.

At the time of the crash, the train was travelling at 179 kilometres (111 miles) per hour , more than twice the speed limit for that stretch of track, according to its black box data recorders.

Investigators said the tragedy resulted from a lapse in attention by the 52-year-old driver, who ended a mobile phone call with the on-board conductor just moments before the train lurched off the rails.

The driver’s lawyer, Manuel Prieto, urged the court not to put all the blame for the accident on his client’s shoulders.

“All humans make mistakes, but the lack of (security) measures is what allows human error to become an accident,” he told reporters.

– ‘Bittersweet feeling’ –

The courts initially said excessive speed was “the sole cause of the accident”, charging Garzon with reckless homicide and causing injuries.

But its finding that state rail operator ADIF bore no criminal liability was later revised following complaints by the victims’ families who said it was at fault because there was no automatic braking system in place nor sufficient warning signs before the bend.

As a result, the investigation was reopened in 2016 and ADIF’s Cortabitarte was also charged.

The Alvia 04155 victims’ association has long complained that no politician was held to account for the “negligence” it blames for the accident, and that the trial has taken so long to start.

“We have a bittersweet feeling because it comes a decade later, and some people will not see justice served because they have sadly passed away,” the spokesman for the association, Jesus Dominguez, said.

The court will hear witness testimony from 669 people during the trial, which is scheduled to run until February 10.