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Driver in Spanish train disaster says he exceeded speed

BARCELONA — The driver in the train crash last week in northwestern Spain that killed 79 people told prosecutors that he had recklessly exceeded the speed limit and would have to deal with the guilt of what happened for the rest of his life, according to a statement he made to prosecutors published Wednesday in the Spanish newspaper El País.

Preliminary investigations released Tuesday showed that the driver of the train, Francisco José Garzón Amo, had answered a train official’s call on the cabin’s telephone and was traveling at 95 miles per hour — almost twice the speed limit — at the time of the accident.

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Asked why he had exceeded the speed limit, Garzón told the magistrate’s court in Santiago de Compostela, where the accident occurred: “I have no explanation, I don’t understand how I didn’t see it. I should have known that at that point that I had to drive at 50 miles per hour.” He added: “The after- effects of what happened are enormous and will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Data from two black boxes retrieved from the mangled wreck showed that the train had been traveling as fast as 119 miles per hour just minutes before the crash on a section of the track where the speed limit is 50 miles per hour.

The Alvia 151 train was carrying 218 passengers when it derailed on a turn on July 24 near Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain.

The train careered off the rails before it slammed into a concrete wall. Some of its cars caught fire. Most of the victims were Spanish, although there were passengers from Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

Garzón told prosecutors that when he reached the turn, he realized almost immediately that he had made a lethal error, according to the report in El País. “In the curve I realized, I realized that I won’t make it, I won’t make it,” he said, adding that he had activated the brake.

Garzón, 52, a veteran driver who had bragged about a penchant for speed in a Facebook posting that has since been deleted, was arrested in his hospital room last week.

He was charged with multiple counts of reckless homicide and was released without bail on Sunday.

His whereabouts since his release have not been publicized.

Minutes after the accident, his face bloodied from the crash, he phoned Renfe, the Spanish national railway company, and said, “I want to die,” according to police records of the call.

Divorced and with no children, Garzón had recently moved in with his ailing mother near Santiago de Compostela.

His passport has been taken away, and he is required to register his presence with a court in Santiago de Compostela every week.

Last year, Garzón had posted a photograph of a locomotive speedometer needle stuck at 124 miles per hour on Facebook, boasting that the reading “has not been tampered with.”

According to a statement Tuesday by the Superior Court of Galicia, the region where the accident happened, Garzón received a telephone call from an official of Renfe and was “reading a map or some kind of paper document” at the time of the crash.

The police are also investigating why another driver was present in the cabin at the time of the crash.

Investigators have retrieved two data recorders, one from the front of the wreck and the other from the back.

The Superior Court of Galicia used the contents of the data recorders to determine that Garzón had activated the brakes just “seconds before the crash.”

The accident was Spain’s worst train crash since 1972, when 86 people were killed in the southwest of the country. While national outrage has focused on Garzón, the largest union of railway workers has insisted that the surveillance system tracking the train’s speed was partly to blame since it was prone to human error.

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

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