SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — Spanish police said on Friday they arrested the driver of the train that blazed far over the speed limit into a curve and toppled over, killing 78 people, and planned to question him as a suspect for “recklessness.”
As suspicion increasingly fell on the driver in Spain’s worst train crash in decades, authorities also located the “black box” that is expected to shed further light on the disaster.
Investigators have opened a probe into possible failings by the 52-year-old driver and the train’s internal speed-regulation systems in the Wednesday derailment. The railway defended the driver on Friday, saying he had an “exhaustive” understanding of the rail line.
In an interview with The Associated Press, an American passenger injured on the train said he saw on a TV monitor screen inside his car that the train was traveling 121 mph seconds before the crash – far above the 50 mph speed limit on the curve where it derailed.
At the scene, crews used a crane to hoist smashed and burned-up cars and were loading them onto flat-bed big-rigs to cart them away. The shattered front engine sat just off the tracks, as passenger train services chugged close by.
Grieving families gathered for funerals near the site of the crash in Santiago de Compostela, a site of Catholic pilgrimage preparing to celebrate its most revered saint.
Santiago officials had been preparing for the city’s festival but canceled it and took control of the city’s main indoor sports arena to use as a makeshift morgue. Police lowered the death toll from 80 to 78 as forensic scientists there matched body parts.
Driver Francisco Jose Garzon Amo was officially arrested late on Thursday in the hospital where he was recovering. He would be questioned “as a suspect for a crime linked to the cause of the accident,” Jaime Iglesias, the National Police chief of the Galicia region, said.
When asked what the alleged offense was, Iglesias said, “recklessness” but declined to give further details.
The driver is being guarded by police and has yet to be interviewed. That might be delayed because of his condition, Iglesias said, though he added that he did not have further details on his medical status.
Spain’s Renfe rail company says Garzon Amo is a 30-year employee of the state rail company who became an assistant driver in 2000 and a fully qualified driver in 2003.
Garzon Amo had driven trains past the spot of the accident 60 times and “the knowledge of this line that he had to have is exhaustive,” Julio Gomez-Pomar, president of Spain’s Renfe rail company, said in a TV interview.
Police are still working to identify what they believe are the remains of six people, and the death toll count could change as they continue their work matching body parts, said Antonio del Amo, the police chief in charge of the scientific service for Spain’s National Police.
Iglesias said police took possession of the train’s “black box” which is expected to shed light on why it was going faster than the speed limit. The box will be handed over to the investigating judge, Iglesias said, adding that the box had not been opened yet.
The box records the train’s trip data, including speed, distances and braking, and is similar to a flight recorder for an airplane. A court spokeswoman declined comment on how long analysis of the box’s contents would take.
An American victim was identified by the Diocese of Arlington as Ana Maria Cordoba, an administrative employee from northern Virginia. Also among the dead were an Algerian and a Mexican, Spanish police said Friday.
Eyewitness accounts backed by security-camera footage of the moment of disaster showed that the eight-carriage train was going too fast as it tried to turn left underneath a road bridge. After impact, witnesses said a fire engulfed passengers trapped in at least one carriage, most likely driven by ruptured tanks of diesel fuel carried in the forward engines.
Stephen Ward, 18-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah who was on the train, said he was writing in his journal when he looked up at the monitor and saw the train’s speed. Then, he said, “the train lifted up off the track. It was like a roller coaster.”
Seconds later, Ward remembered, a backpack fell from the rack above him and he felt the train fly off the track. That was his last memory before he blacked out on impact.
When Ward woke up, someone was helping him walk out of his train car and crawl out of a ditch where the car had toppled over. He thought he was dreaming for 30 seconds until he felt his blood-drenched face and noticed the scene around him.
“Everyone was covered in blood. There was smoke coming up off the train,” he said. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of screaming. There were plenty of dead bodies. It was quite gruesome.”
It was Spain’s deadliest train accident since 1972, when a train collided with a bus in southwest Spain, killing 86 people and injuring 112.