Carnage as 18 killed in head-on train collision
A commuter train, which pulled into the path of a late-running express during the morning rush hour in Belgium yesterday after apparently missing a "stop signal", caused one of the worst rail disasters in European history.
At least 18 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the smash, which happened at Buizingen outside the Flemish town of Halle, 15km southwest of Brussels.
Most of the dead were in the "obliterated" first-class carriage at the front of the express. The force of the crash left the two trains, which were carrying about 300 people, jack-knifed together. Emergency workers toiled for hours in temperatures of -3C to free the injured, carrying out several amputations in the mangled wreckage.
Throughout a snowy afternoon, teams of firefighters carried a procession of covered stretchers to a makeshift mortuary set up in a tent on the far side of the tracks.
Officials suggested that while the track had been equipped with an emergency braking system to prevent trains running through red lights, the local train did not yet have the necessary technology.
"I saw a body that was just a torso with no legs. I saw a man who had lost all his fingers," said one dazed woman who had been in the third carriage of the fast train.
Trains were disrupted across Western Europe, and Eurostar services will remain suspended today between London and Brussels.
Light snow was falling when the 8.28am six-car commuter train from Leuven to Braine-le-Comte pulled out of the tiny Buizingen station at a crawl and on to Line 96 of the Belgian national rail system.
According to Lodewijk De Witte, the Governor of the local province of Flemish Brabant, it was a fatal error. "Apparently it did not heed a stop light," he said.
The driver, who was thought to be among those killed, would not have been expecting to be held up because the Brussels-bound express hurtling towards him was running about 10 minutes late. The faster 12-carriage train had been given the all-clear to head along Line 96 to the capital.
Sebastian Duckers, a passenger in the fourth coach of the express, said: "I was just sitting there like normal when there was this huge bang and I was thrown on to the seat opposite. Then there was a lot of shouting and crying from all over.
"There was no braking at all. The windows were broken and a couple of carriages were on their sides. Outside the window was a dismembered body."
Railway staff were on hand in minutes, but initially ordered passengers to stay inside the carriages because some of the overhead power lines had been brought down.
"The first two carriages were completely squashed," 37-year-old Hambaoui Mounir said. "I was in the carriage right behind. The train fell to one side, people fell over each other, there was no air and women and children were screaming."
Patricia Lallemand (40), who was in the third carriage of the express, added: "When we came out we saw dead bodies lying next to the tracks. Some of them were mutilated."
The four metre concrete safety wall probably prevented the wreckage from crashing into the gardens of nearby houses, although the emergency services retrieved one broken train door from the residential side of the barrier.
A third train on a parallel rail had to hit its emergency brakes and narrowly avoided running into a carriage that was lying across its path.
The official death toll yesterday stood at 18 with another 30 seriously injured.
SNCB, the national train operator, refused to comment on the cause of the accident.
Officials said that they expected the death toll to exceed the country's worst train disaster, when a crash near Leuven in 1954 killed 20 German football fans and seriously injured 40 others.
In March 2001 eight people died when a crowded train smashed into an empty train driving on the wrong tracks.
Yves Leterme, the prime minister, who cut short a visit to Kosovo to visit the scene, said that he was stunned by the accident, which came less than three weeks after a gas explosion at a residential block in Liege killed 14 people.
Albert II, King of the Belgians, also returned from abroad to inspect the crash site. (© The Times, London)