SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain: Spanish police were waiting Friday to question one of the drivers of a train that derailed, killing at least 80 passengers, amid media reports it was travelling at twice the speed limit.
The driver, lightly injured, “would be questioned by police in hospital where he has been placed under surveillance,” the High Court in Galicia said in a statement Thursday.
The investigating magistrate in the case had not ordered his detention, the statement added.
“The judge has asked police to take his statement,” in the presence of a lawyer, a court spokeswoman said. After that, he will have to give his account before the magistrate, she added.
A police source said they had originally expected to question him on Thursday.
Renfe, the state railway company, has said it is too early to determine the cause of the tragedy.
But secretary of state for transport Rafael Catala told radio station Cadena Ser that the early signs suggested the crash had been caused by the train going too fast.
According to several media reports, the train was going at twice the speed limit when it crashed near the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela late Wednesday.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a native of the city, announced the launch of two probes into the accident and declared three days of national mourning.
A local government official in the Galicia region said there were 80 confirmed dead, making it the deadliest rail accident since 1944 when hundreds were killed in a train collision, also between Madrid and Galicia.
Regional health minister Rocio Mosquera said another 178 had been injured, including 94 who remain in hospital — and warned that the death toll could rise.
Thirty-two of the injured were in critical condition, including four children.
The US Department of State confirmed that at least one of its citizens had died and five others had been injured in the crash.
President Barack Obama was “shocked and saddened” over the “tragic train derailment”, he said in a statement.
Renfe had said there were 218 passengers and four crew on the train, but the casualty toll provided by the regional government indicated there were over 250 people on board.
The train flew off the tracks and flipped on to its side as it was travelling from Madrid to the port town of Ferrol, with carriages slamming into each other as it approached the pilgrimage centre of Santiago de Compostela.
Smoke still billowed from the wreckage of mangled steel and smashed windows on Thursday as bodies were laid out under blankets along the tracks.
King Juan Carlos called off public engagements to visit victims in the hospital where most of the injured are being treated.
“All of Spain is moved by this event, all Spaniards are united by the pain suffered by the victims’ families,” he said.
The driver to be questioned was trapped in the cab after the accident, El Pais newspaper reported.
He had told railway officials by radio that the train had taken the bend at 190 kilometres (118 miles) an hour, unidentified investigators told the newspaper.
The speed limit on that section of track is 80 kilometres an hour.
“I hope no one died because it will weigh on my conscience,” said the driver, the paper’s online edition reported.
The train’s data recording “black box” and other documents are now with the judge in charge of the investigation, the regional court statement added.
A security video taken at the moment of the accident shows the train negotiating a curve before a number of carriages come off the rails and drag the rest off with them.
Several witnesses spoke of a loud explosion.
“I was at home and I heard something like a clap of thunder. It was very loud and there was lots of smoke,” said 62-year-old Maria Teresa Ramos, who lives just metres (yards) from the site.
“My neighbours tried to pull out people who were trapped inside the carriages with the help of pickaxes and sledgehammers and they eventually got them out with a hand saw. It was unreal,” said Francisco Otero, 39, who was visiting his parents.
Renfe said the train had no technical problems and had just passed an inspection on the morning of the accident.
The train derailed on a stretch of high-speed track about four kilometres from the station in the Santiago de Compostela, which was hosting the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage followed by Christians since the Middle Ages.
Under the towering stone arches of the city’s cathedral, hundreds of worshippers held a mass and prayed for the victims.
Local officials have called off concerts and firework displays that had been planned as part of the festivities in honour of its patron saint.