March 5, 2012 – Polish Train Wreck Kills 16: The death toll in the high-speed, head-on collision of two passenger trains in Poland rose to 16 people on Sunday, with the authorities asking how both ended up on the same track.
Prosecutors said that they had opened an investigation, but it was not immediately clear what caused the accident, and they had not ruled out human error. The stretch of track where the collision occurred was modernized last year, the transportation minister, Slawomir Nowak, said.
“We need to wait for a detailed report of an independent commission,” Mr. Nowak told reporters at the scene, “then we will need to calmly take a stand.”
The crash, which occurred outside the town of Szczekociny, north of Krakow, was the worst such accident in Poland in more than 20 years. The trains were carrying about 350 people when they collided shortly after 9:00PM on Saturday. In addition to the fatalities, 58 passengers were injured, many seriously, the authorities said.
An American woman was among those killed, said Benjamin Ousley Naseman, a spokesman for the United States Consulate in Krakow. Her family had been notified, but the woman’s name had not been released, pending an official list of the victims that the Polish authorities were putting together.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk (pictured below) rushed to the scene of what he called “the most dramatic train catastrophe in our history for many, many years.” Survivors described a powerful collision, followed by the screams of the injured and frightened passengers.
Many of Poland’s trains are older models, noticeably less advanced than the high-speed trains in neighboring Germany. Tracks and stations across the country are being improved to prepare for the European soccer championship, for which Poland and Ukraine are co-hosts this summer.
The impending arrival of millions of soccer fans for the event, known as Euro 2012, was already expected to put pressure on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The crash has put pressure on officials to find answers behind the deadly accident and correct any problems quickly.
Poland has developed rapidly in recent years, and it was the only country in the European Union that did not slip into recession in the wake of the global financial crisis. Yet the government has tried to rein in spending to avoid contagion from the European debt crisis. The countryside offers a study in contrasts, with gleaming new office parks next to rundown buildings from the Communist era.
One of the trains that collided on Saturday was traveling from Przemysl, near the Ukrainian border, to Warsaw; the other was southbound from Warsaw to Krakow, one of the busiest stretches in the country. Travelers described a chaotic and gruesome scene, with bodies and severed limbs caught in the twisted wreckage. Television footage from the site showed crumpled, derailed passenger cars piled on top of one another at odd angles.
YouTube Video of Polish Train Wreck:
“We couldn’t take our legs out. The firemen helped us. Our legs were stuck between two seat rows,” one survivor, Piotr Sikora, told the Polish television station TVN24. He described “a thud, darkness, everything flying in all directions.”
More than 450 firefighters and 100 police officers responded to the crash. Heavy equipment was needed to cut both survivors and the dead from the wreckage, and two helicopters were used to airlift the injured to hospitals. On Sunday, emergency workers used dogs to search the wreckage for survivors.
President Bronislaw Komorowski (pictured above) said a national period of mourning would be declared. The disaster comes less than two years after a plane crash claimed the life of his predecessor, Lech Kaczynski, and 95 other members of Poland’s political, military and religious elite. (Credits: Picture – Bartosz Siedlik/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, Narrative – Nicholas Kulish for the New York Times, Anatol Magdziarz contributed from Warsaw, Additional Pictures and YouTube Video – Mail Online News).
The Master of Disaster