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More than 50 dead after train derailment

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

AMAGASAKI, Japan -- The blue-and-silver carriage lay twisted against the wall of an apartment building, bent grotesquely around the corner by another ruptured car from the derailed commuter train. A third car lay flattened under the wreckage.
Hundreds of helmeted workers -- their jumpsuits of orange, tan, blue, white and black denoting various government agencies -- clambered over the torn metal Monday pulling out the dead and injured in Japan's deadliest rail accident in four decades.
Ambulances, paramedics and police had swarmed over the crash site near the city of Amagasaki, about 250 miles west of Tokyo. The train operator, West Japan Railway Co., said at least 343 people had been taken to hospitals.
Investigators focused on excessive speed and a 23-year-old train driver's lack of experience after the crowded commuter train jumped the rails Monday on a curve and plowed into the apartment building just a few yards from the tracks.
Rescue work
Rescuers worked into the night trying to free survivors from twisted rail carriages left when the train hit the nine-story building's parking garage, killing at least 57 people and injuring 441. It was not clear if any bystanders or apartment residents were among the victims.
Early today, rescuers working under floodlights pulled out a conscious but seriously injured 46-year-old woman and took her to a hospital, police official Hiroshi Yamatani said.
Two men were trapped in the same car. They were conscious and receiving emergency medical care but rescuers were hampered by worries about leaked fuel, said Shohei Matsuda, an Amagasaki fire department official. Others also were caught in the wreckage and feared dead.
Distraught people rushed to hospitals looking for relatives who might have been injured or killed.
Takamichi Hayashi said his elder brother, 19-year-old Hiroki, might be among those still in the wreck. He said Hiroki had called their mother twice on a mobile phone from inside one of the train cars hours after the crash but remained unaccounted for at the time.
"He told my mother: 'I'm in pain. I'm not going to make it,'" Hayashi said.
Cause of collision
Jammed with 580 passengers, the seven-car train derailed at 9:18 a.m. on a curve, then plowed through an automobile and slammed into the wall of the building's parking garage. Two of the five derailed train cars were flattened and one was bent around a corner of the building.
Officials said no cause had been ruled out but added that investigators suspected speed and noted the driver had been working at the job less than a year.
The driver -- identified as Ryujiro Takami, 23 -- was unaccounted for after the wreck.
He got his train operator's license last May. A month later, he overshot a station and was issued a warning, railway officials and police said. Passengers said he also stopped too far past a station platform Monday just before the crash.
Tsunemi Murakami, safety director for train operator West Japan Railway Co., said it had not been determined how fast the train was traveling.
A surviving crew member told police he "felt the train was going faster than usual," public broadcaster NHK said.
That echoed comments from passengers who speculated the driver might have been speeding to make up for time lost when he overshot the previous station by 25 feet and had to back up. The train was nearly two minutes behind schedule, media reports said.
The crash occurred on a curve with a speed limit of 43 mph. Murakami estimated the train would have had to be traveling at 82 mph to have jumped the track purely because of excessive speed.
Safety controls
Some stretches of track in Japan have safety systems designed to stop trains at any sign of trouble without requiring drivers to take emergency action. But transport ministry officials said the automatic braking system along the stretch of track where the train crashed is among the oldest in Japan and can't halt trains traveling at high speeds.
Outside experts predicted investigators would find a combination of factors to blame.
"There are very few train accidents in Japan in which a train has flipped just because it was going too fast. There might have been several conditions at work -- speed, winds, poor train maintenance or aging rails," Kazuhiko Nagase, a train expert who is a professor at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, told NHK.
"For the train to flip, it had to be traveling at an extremely high speed," Nagase said.
Murakami said investigators also found evidence of rocks on the tracks, but hadn't determined whether that contributed to the crash.
Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa told reporters he would order all of Japan's railway operators to conduct safety inspections in the coming days.
"It's tragic," Kitagawa said at the scene. "We have to investigate why this horrible accident happened."
Deadly train accidents are rare in Japan, which is home to one of the world's most complex, efficient and heavily traveled rail networks. Monday's crash was the worst since 161 people died in a three-train crash in 1963 at Tsurumi, outside Tokyo.