Emergency teams took too much time to aid train passengers, say experts

Records point to confusion and tardiness in response to deadly rail disaster

Santiago de Compostela -
Rescue workers and neighbors come to the aid of injured passengers at the train crash last Wednesday in Santiago.
Rescue workers and neighbors come to the aid of injured passengers at the train crash last Wednesday in Santiago.Óscar Corral

Confusion and tardiness contributed to the lack of coordination of emergency services in Galicia minutes after last Wednesday’s deadly train accident near Ferrol, which claimed 79 lives, according to records obtained by EL PAÍS.

It took more than two hours for Galicia’s 112 emergency services to declare a code 2 alert, which is required for major disasters. The region’s mobile communications unit — which is dispatched to help coordinate police, ambulance and other emergency services — also took one hour and 46 minutes to arrive at the scene.

Two helicopters, called to help in the rescue efforts, were late in taking off and there was difficulties in setting up halogen lamps to illuminate the area as night fell on Wednesday.

Many neighbors had converged at the accident site to pull people from the trains until medics and police arrived.

“You can see in the television images people in shorts and wearing tennis shoes helping in the rescue. Any expert can tell you that this is a clear sign of lack of coordination,” said one emergency technician. “This can’t happen two hours later. By that time, everything has to be in the hands of professionals.”

According to a confidential report obtained by EL PAÍS, the first call to 112 on July 24 came in at 8.41pm by a local resident who not only reported the Alvia train accident but said she saw dead people lying about. The call was transferred to 061 emergency medical services so the witness could describe the scene. Santiago de Compostela was preparing for the biggest fiesta of the year — the Day of the Apostle — and 500 members of the police force, fire brigades and civil protection agency had been mobilized to handle the large crowds that were expected to converge on the city the following day, according to the central government’s delegate in Galicia.

After the first call was made to 112, local authorities were dispatched while fire officials called back the first witness who reported the incident earlier.

The report also shows that 061 asked for the first helicopter to be dispatched at 8.51pm — 10 minutes after the crash — and called for a second one 90 seconds later. However, neither helicopter was able to take off immediately. The pilot of the first chopper told emergency officials that heavy fog was preventing him from flying and said the medics were waiting to be taken to the scene by ambulance.

The pilot of the second helicopter said he was unable to fly because he needed repairs.

As for the illumination, the Santiago local police said they asked for lighting generators at 9.41pm, but the fire department said that request came at around 10.14pm. The 061 emergency medical services number reported that the halogens were requested at 10.33pm, after night fell and made it difficult to conduct the rescue operations.

Another factor that has taken emergency experts by surprise was the fact that 112 had to call Adif, the government agency in charge of infrastructure and maintenance of the Spanish railway network, to ask it for the make and model of the train that had crashed. The call was placed at 9.04pm but Adif could not respond immediately and had to call back five minutes later with the information and, more importantly, that the train was carrying 224 passengers.

“Thirty minutes is a long time for personnel to have that type of information. And Adif also made a mistake and gave them the wrong location,” said one expert.

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