At 8.41pm on Wednesday night, when the Alvia intercity train headed from Madrid to Ferrol was travelling at 190km/h, a warning signal went off in the driver’s compartment. It was to tell the operator, Francisco José Garzón, that he should reduce his speed to 80km/h before the train of two engines and eight carriages took a sharp curve.
The train left the tracks that had been reconfigured in 2011 to adapt them to the high-speed AVE trains and entered the older section of the route. As the train took the corner, it derailed, with tragic consequences. As of Friday morning, the death toll stands at 78 people.
After the crash, the driver used his cellphone to call the 24-hour emergency services number. “I had to go at 80km/h but I’m going at 190,” he is heard to say. In the recording, which was handed over to the judge investigating the case on Wednesday night, the driver uses the present tense, despite the fact that the accident had already taken place.
He is also heard to speak of “the poor passengers,” adding “I hope that no one has been killed…”
The Talgo rail firm, which uses internal speed controls in its trains, informally confirmed on Thursday that the train was traveling at an “extreme speed.”
In his first reconstruction of events, Garzón confirmed that an alert did go off in the driver’s compartment, and that he pressed a button to acknowledge that he had received the excessive speed warning.
But if that was the case, why did he not put on the brakes? Why would a train driver with so many years of experience take a sharp bend at a dangerous velocity?
This is what the investigation into the accident – the worst that Spain’s rail network has suffered in 40 years – will aim to clarify.
Ana, a 37-year-old survivor of the crash who regularly uses the rail route, explained that she realized just before the accident that something was wrong. “We had never left that tunnel so fast,” she said. “My carriage flipped over and turned into a mass of twisted metal.”
“The driver was going too fast,” said David Manso Fernández from his hospital bed. “He tried to brake but it was too late.”
For many families affected by the tragedy, Thursday was a day of desperate searching. The sister of Carolina Besada Garrido, an 18-year-old girl who was traveling to Santiago alone for the city’s fiestas – which have been canceled in the wake of the accident – called for help on the internet to find out whether her sister was one of the victims. Users of the social networks did what they could to help her, sending her pictures of the survivors. But on Thursday morning her death was confirmed.
The residents of Galicia have rallied around to support the victims. So many people came to donate blood at local transfusion points that the staff were unable to cope with the number of volunteers. According to information from the regional health authority, enough blood was received for 2,000 operations.
Healthcare staff who were on vacation immediately returned to their places of work to help with the treatment of the injured, while local hotels and hostels offered free accommodation to the victims of the families and taxi drivers were offering lifts without charging a euro.