WARSAW, SZCZEKOCINY, Poland (Reuters) -
Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski announced a two-day national mourning period on Sunday for the 16 people killed in a head-on collision of two trains in the country’s worst rail accident in more than two decades.
The trains collided at an average speed of 100 km (60 miles) near the town of Szczekociny in southern Poland on Saturday night after one of them switched to the wrong track minutes before the crash, said Transport Minister Slawomir Nowak.
“You can only imagine the horrific toll this caused,” he told a news conference.
Most of the carriages had derailed, some were crumpled or broken in half and others were lying on their side along the track.
Rescuers recovered 16 bodies from the wreckage and were able to identify nine of the victims, Interior Minister Jacek Cichocki said. Nearly 60 of the estimated 350 passengers on board were injured. Three remained in intensive care.
Cichocki said authorities could not rule out finding more bodies as heavy machinery continued to pull apart the heaps of metal.
“The scope of this disaster is sufficiently large to warrant national mourning,” said President Bronislaw Komorowski from the site of the accident.
Komorowski also visited some of the survivors in hospital.
More than 450 firefighters and other rescue workers had struggled overnight to extract the victims from the wreckage at a remote field crossed only by a pair of rail tracks.
“There was a crash, the lights went out and everything started to fly,” Piotr Sikora, one of the injured passengers, told Reuters from his hospital bed. “The carriage bent like an accordion and our legs, mine and the person next to me, were stuck very deep between seats which are normally a meter apart.”
Officials said it was too early to speculate about the cause of the collision, but said human error could not be ruled out.
The bodies of two of three drivers from the two trains were found. The fate of the third was not immediately known, although he could be among those still to be identified.
One of the victims was a U.S. citizen, while among the passengers were several Ukrainian, Moldavian, French, and Spanish citizens, officials said.
One of the trains had been going from Warsaw to Krakow and the other from the city of Przemysl to the capital.
The wreckage on one of Poland’s most heavily used train routes was causing delays of up to three hours on Sunday.
In 1990, 16 people were killed in a train crash in Warsaw.
Additional reporting by Piotr Pilat and Rob Strybel; Editing by Janet Lawrence