SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELLA, Spain: Nine years after the Santiago de Compostela train accident, which killed 80 people in 2013, justice began on Wednesday to examine in a tense climate the failures that led to the worst Spanish railway tragedy since 1944.
Arrived at dawn in small groups, faces closed, eyes sometimes misted with tears, the relatives of the victims took their place in a hall of the City of Culture in this city of Galicia (north-west of Spain) , exceptionally transformed into a court in view of the large number of civil parties present.
« Today we feel tired, sad and angry, wanting this nightmare to end. We want to finally know everything that went wrong, » María told AFP before the hearing. Ángeles Prado, who lost his 21-year-old daughter and niece in the accident.
« They had gone to see a fireworks display. We had said: + Take the train, not the car +, thinking it was safer », says the sixty-year-old, her throat tied, evoking « a very difficult mourning » made of « anguish » and « unbearable pain ».
« If the driver had done his job well, my daughter and her cousin would still be alive, that’s for sure. But he could have felt ill, had an indisposition… You can’t entrust a high-speed train ( …) to a single person”, she denounces.
« Gross negligence»
On the evening of July 24, 2013, the Alvia 04155 high-speed train from Madrid had suddenly derailed shortly before arriving in Santiago de Compostela, before crashing into a surrounding wall located four kilometers from the city.
A total of 80 people were killed, including 68 Spaniards, two French, two Americans and several Latin Americans. The accident, which occurred the day before the feast of Saint-Jacques, which brings together thousands of Catholic pilgrims in the Galician city each year, had also injured more than 140 people.
The investigation quickly revealed excessive speed. The Renfe train, a Spanish railway company, was traveling at 179 km/h when it derailed, while the speed on this rail section was limited to 80 km/h.
The train driver, Francisco Garzon, who was on the phone with the train controller just before the accident, showed « recklessness », thus estimated the magistrates. This man, 52 years old at the time of the accident, had asked « forgiveness » to the victims a year after the facts.
At his side appears Andrés Cortabitarte, former safety manager of Adif, the manager of the Spanish rail network, accused of not having carried out a risk study on the bend concerned, devoid of signaling systems, alert and automatic braking.
Four years in prison were required against each of the two men, tried for « homicide resulting from serious professional negligence ». In total, more than 600 witnesses and experts are expected to testify in this trial, scheduled until February 10.
On the sidelines of the first day of hearing, devoted to points of procedure, Francisco Garzon’s lawyer, Manuel Prieto, called on the court not to place all the responsibility for the derailment on the shoulders of his client.
« All human beings make mistakes, but the lack of (safety) measures is what allows human error to turn into an accident », assured the lawyer, describing Francisco Garzon – who remained silent on the bench of the defendants – as « worried » and « nervous ».
A message relayed by Jesus Dominguez, spokesman for the association of victims Alvia 04155, who has denounced for several years the « failures » of the State and the « slowness » of Spanish justice, accused of having left aside the question of political responsibilities.
“We have a bittersweet feeling because this trial comes almost 10 years” after the facts and therefore too late “for some people, who have since unfortunately died”, he underlined, regretting that “only the driver “has so far apologized to the victims.
Sign of the anger accumulated during the nine years of investigation, the former head of Adif, Andrés Cortabitarte, was copiously insulted by the families at the end of the first day of debates, a person having even brought him a knock on the way out of court.