Belgian Commuter Trains Collide, At Least 18 Dead

Monday, February 15, 2010 - 2:03pm

BRUSSELS — A commuter train ran a stop light during morning rush hour and collided head-on with another train in a Brussels suburb Monday, killing at least 18 people and injuring 55 in Belgium's deadliest train wreck in decades, officials said.

The impact peeled away the front of one train car and threw at least one other off the tracks, causing amputations and other severe injuries, witnesses and officials said. Train service across Western Europe was disrupted.

The Flanders provincial crisis center said in a statement carried by the Belgian media that at least 18 people were killed. Thirty survivors remained hospitalized, several of them in a "very serious" condition, the statement said.

Lodewijk De Witte, the governor of the province of Flemish Brabant, told reporters that one train "apparently did not heed a stop light."

The trains collided in light snow just outside of the station at Buizingen around 8:30 a.m.

The force of the collision smashed one train deep into the front of the other, tearing back the metal sides. The trains tipped high into the air and broke overhead power lines.

One of the front cars appeared to have careened across the tracks, demolishing a small maintenance shed next to the rail line. A high concrete wall around the train yard seemed to have kept debris from hitting nearby houses.

It appeared to be the country's worst train wreck since 1954, when a crash near Leuven killed 20 German soccer fans and seriously injured 40 others. In March 28, 2001, eight people died when a crowded train plowed into an empty train driving on the wrong tracks.

Belgian National Railways spokesman Jochen Goovaerts said his agency was awaiting the outcome of the investigation before discussing the cause of Monday's accident.

"It was a nightmare," Christian Wampach, 47, told The Associated Press after medical workers bandaged his head at a sports complex where the less seriously injured were treated. Those hurt more badly were taken to several hospitals in and near Brussels. The Red Cross appealed for blood donations.

"We were thrown about for about 15 seconds. There were a number of people injured in my car but I think all the dead were in the first car," said Wampach, who was in the third car of a Brussels-bound train.

Photos from the scene showed rescuers pulling the wounded from a car that appeared to have tipped onto its side. Other emergency officials rushed victims on stretchers along the tracks.

"When we came out we saw dead bodies lying next to the tracks, some mutilated," said Patricia Lallemand, 40, who was in the same car as Wampach, and was unhurt.

Wira Leire, 20, said he was woken by a loud crashing sound and leapt to his bedroom window to see two cars jackknifed directly in front of his home.

"There were people lying on the ground next to the train, so I grabbed some blankets and ran into the back garden," he said. "But I but couldn't climb over the concrete wall, so I just threw the blankets to the rescuers who were already gathering."

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme canceled a trip to Kosovo, turning around his plane minutes after landing at Pristina's main airport, the Kosovo prime minister's office said.

Eurostar reported on its Web site that its high-speed trains had suspended service in and out of Brussels and could remain shut down all day.

The international high-speed network Thalys, which links major cities in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, temporarily halted all traffic because its trains use the same rails as commuter lines near Hal, said Patricia Baars, a company spokeswoman.

At least four Thalys trains were stopped en route, and the railway operator deployed staffers to stations where they were rerouted to provide assistance to travelers on board, she said.

"No (Thalys) train is moving for the moment ... it's very hard to know today when services will resume," she said. "It appears this was a very severe accident."

Thalys has at least 25 round-trip trains operating between Paris and Brussels each day, plus seven linking Brussels and Amsterdam and six from Belgium to Cologne, Germany.