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Driver’s love of speed scrutinized in derailment

80 of train’s 218 passengers dead in Spain wreck

Images like this one from security camera video show a passenger train derailing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on Wednesday. Spanish news reports said the train was going more than double the speed limit.

REUTERS

Images like this one from security camera video show a passenger train derailing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on Wednesday. Spanish news reports said the train was going more than double the speed limit.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — The grainy video lasts little more than 10 seconds, but long enough to show the blazing speed of a Spanish passenger train bound for Santiago de Compostela that bounced against a curved wall and thundered off the track like a twisted toy.

Emergency workers were still picking through mangled debris Thursday, hours after 80 people were killed in one of Europe’s worst rail accidents in recent years. With the footage from a security camera, investigators were exploring clues, focusing on the train’s speed and a middle-aged driver who relished high velocity and boasted about breaking speed records on his Facebook page.

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The driver, Francisco José Garzón Amo, with more than three decades of experience, is now under investigation by a judge who has ordered the collection of all recordings in connection with the crash. On the day of the wreck, he substituted for another driver at the controls just 60 miles before the crash, according to Spanish news reports.

Garzón’s Facebook page, deleted Thursday morning, included a photograph and exchanges that portrayed a taste for speed, and perhaps even recklessness. One photo posted in March 2012 showed a speedometer needle stuck at 124 miles per hour and his giddy remark: “I’m at the limit and I can’t go any faster or they will give me a fine.”

After one of his friends made a joking reference to speeding, Garzón replied, in capital letters: “Imagine what a rush it would be traveling alongside the Civil Guard, and passing them so that their speed traps go off. Hehe, that would be quite a fine for Renfe, hehe,” referring to the Spanish rail operator.

On Thursday, Spanish news media reported that the driver had said the train’s speed had been 94 miles per hour, more than double the limit in the stretch where the train derailed.

Most high-speed lines that are part of the European Rail Traffic system are covered by a sophisticated GPS-based surveillance system that constantly monitors trains’ speed and that automatically brakes them at speed limits.

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Slower trains and trains crossing urban areas in Spain and other European countries use a less intrusive system that warns the driver with sound and lights at excessive speeds, but does not automatically brake the train, according to María Carmen Palao, a spokeswoman with Spain’s ADIF rail infrastructure company.

The accident, she said, took place roughly two to three miles outside the station at Santiago de Compostela, in the “transition zone” between the two systems. The wreck occurred on the Galicia line, run by the rail operator Renfe and opened in 2011.

The train’s driver survived the accident with light injuries and is under police guard, though he has not been formally arrested. He is “lucid and able to speak,” according to Carmen Prieto, a spokeswoman for the Spanish Development Ministry.

The train was almost full, carrying 218 passengers and merrymakers who were returning to the region for a special holiday on July 25. It is the feast day for St. James the Apostle, the patron saint of Spain who for centuries has inspired pilgrims to walk El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. The pilgrimage has had a burst of popularity in recent years, drawing walkers from around the world.

The US State Department said one American died and at least five others were hurt but cautioned that those figures could be revised upward, according to the Associated Press.

After the crash, the city of Santiago de Compostela canceled its extensive celebration, and authorities urged people to donate blood for the victims.

And thousands of people made another sort of pilgrimage to the site of the disaster. Walking up and down in a small rural path next to the station, they watched as rescuers used cranes and trucks to hoist the engines of the wrecked train. All — children, teens, and older people — stood in funeral-like silence.

Nearby, in a building where an information center had been set up, police officers kept the victims’ families from the public eye. Some walked around the building in tears, hugging and comforting each other.

Outpourings of sympathy came from all corners, including the White House.

“On behalf of the American people, we offer our deepest sympathies and condolences to the families and loved ones of the more than 80 people who lost their lives,” President Obama said in a statement.

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