Italian train inferno kills 14

1st July 2009, Comments 0 comments

Witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as many of the injured in Viareggio were left with extensive burns.

Viareggio -- A train ferrying liquid petroleum gas derailed in an Italian seaside resort, sparking a gigantic fireball that consumed homes and killed at least 14 people, officials said Tuesday.

Witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as many of the injured in Viareggio were left with extensive burns. The driver told of his "miracle" escape after his cabin filled with the liquid gas.

The local health service had initially given a toll of 16 dead and 36 injured. But the crisis cell later downscaled the toll to 13 confirmed deaths, a figure also used by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the accident site.

"Of the 11 people recovered from the debris, we have to add two others -- including a little girl -- who died of their injuries," Berlusconi told an impromptu press conference, adding that four others were missing.

Firefighters later said the body of a woman had been recovered from the debris of a destroyed building, raising the death toll to 14.

"The entire area of the station has to be evacuated," said Berlusconi, adding that cleaning-up operations "will end on Wednesday afternoon".

The "accident was caused by a passing scooter", the prime minister said, without elaborating.

He said the wagon, which was made in the United States and registered in Germany, was due to be overhauled in December. The prime minister also stressed that most victims had serious burns covering up to 80 percent of their bodies.

More than 1,000 people were evacuated because of the danger of more explosions, said Luca Lunardini, mayor of the city of 50,000 people.

Authorities declared a state of emergency and Transport Minister Altero Matteoli set up an official inquiry.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram expressing his "deep compassion for the pain which has touched the whole town".

One of the drivers told of his scramble to escape the inferno just before midnight on Monday. "The drivers' cabin filled with the gas, we managed to escape. We are alive, it is a miracle."

Guido Bertolaso, the chief of the civil protection services, said: "There are several bodies in the streets thrown out of the buildings by the explosion," and added that many corpses were charred beyond recognition.

One wagon in the 14-carriage train transporting liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) came off the rails in the town, which is just northwest of Pisa.

Witnesses reported hearing three explosions: a violent initial blast and two others just after.

"The cars flipped over on their sides on the rails and the gas spread out among the nearest houses before exploding," said senior firefighter Antonio Gambardella.

Small homes along the railway line were caught in the blast. Two small residential buildings were completely engulfed in flames and destroyed. Around 18 people were believed to live in one of the buildings.

Some were known to have survived, Gambardella told AFP, "but we fear there could be several more people under the rubble".

Investigators were looking into the possibility that the train derailed because the axle on one of the wagons broke, derailing the container and its volatile cargo, said the ANSA news agency.

The locomotive and five wagons led on the rails at the crash site. The locomotive and first wagon were blackened by flames and detached from the rest of the convoy and wagon wheels were some 30 metres away.

The train, which started from the port of La Spezia, was going to Pisa.

Giuseppe Intorre, who was stationmaster in Viareggio until 1992, said the tragedy could have been possibly averted if there were more personnel at the station.

"Earlier, there were more checks, more staff in the station and when something occurred, we could alert them," the retiree said.

Tents had been erected to house the homeless for the night and Italian rail workers in the region were to stage a one-hour strike on Wednesday to demand better safety conditions.

Monday's accident was the most serious in Italy since a cargo train and a passenger service collided on January 7, 2005, killing 17 people and injuring another 60 near the northern city of Bologna.

Liquefied petroleum gas is a mixture of propane and butane that is used for cooking or as fuel for specially adapted cars.


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