Worst Train Tragedy In Poland In Years Kills 16

Published March 4, 2012 12:36PM (EST)

SZCZECHOCINY, Poland (AP) — Two trains running on the same track collided head-on in southern Poland late Saturday, leaving 16 people dead and 58 injured — the country's worst train disaster in more than 20 years.

The powerful collision occurred near the town of Szczekociny, just north of Krakow, after one of the trains ended up on the wrong track. Maintenance work was being done on the tracks in the area, but officials say it's too early to determine the cause of the disaster.

President Bronislaw Komorowski visited the site Sunday and said when rescue efforts are over he would make an announcement about a period of national mourning due to the scope of the suffering involved.

Several of the passengers were foreigners, including people from Ukraine, Spain and France, but none of them were among the dead or mostly seriously injured, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.

"This is our most tragic train disaster in many, many years," he said.

An unnamed passenger interviewed on the all-news station TVN24 said he felt the force of the collision.

"I hit the person in front of me. The lights went out. Everything flew," he said. "We flew over the compartment like bags. We could hear screams. We prayed."

The accident happened Saturday around 9 p.m. and rescue workers labored through the night to recover bodies and the injured.

They brought in heavy equipment to free a body from the mangled wreckage of the train, and ended up finding two, a spokesman for firefighters, Radoslaw Lendor, told TVN24.

A doctor in one of the hospitals, Szymon Nowak, said many of the injured were in a serious condition, with some in artificially induced comas.

"It's a very, very sad day and night in the history of Polish railways and for all of us," Tusk said.

The accident comes three months before millions of football fans will start crisscrossing the country — many by train — to watch matches at the Euro 2012 football championships, which is being co-hosted by Ukraine.

Poland, which is still recovering economically from decades of communist rule, doesn't yet have the high-speed trains of Western Europe — many of the local trains are old and slow. However, the country does offer fairly speedy service between some key cities, and trains are generally seen as safe and used by many in the country of 38 million.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into how the train was on the wrong track, but officials said it was too soon to draw any conclusions.

One train was traveling from the eastern city of Przemysl to Warsaw in the north, while the other — on the wrong track — was heading south from Warsaw to Krakow.

President Komorowski visited the crash site Sunday, as well as hospitals where the injured were being treated.

"The scale of this phenomenon is so large that there should be nationwide mourning," he said.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed his nation's condolences to the victims' families and wished the injured a swift recovery.

"It is with horror that I learned about the grave train accident in Poland that killed numerous people and injured many others," Westerwelle said. "Our deepest compassion and our condolences go to our Polish friends."

The tragedy was Poland's worst involving trains since 1990, when 16 people were killed in a collision involving two trains in the Warsaw suburb of Ursus. Since then, the most serious Polish rail accident was in 1997, when 12 people were killed in Reptowo.

The country's most deadly train disaster post-World War II dates back to 1980, when 65 people were killed when a freight train collided with a passenger train near Otloczyn.


Associated Press writers Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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