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Freight train explosion in Italy kills 13

June 30, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: June 30 2009

Rescue workers in the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio on Tuesday scoured homes and cars destroyed in the inferno unleashed by an Italian freight train carrying liquefied petroleum gas that derailed and exploded, killing at least 13 people.

Local media reported that three children were among the dead, and more than 30 people injured. Five people were still missing as of Tuesday night.

“There was a great orange flash and then three big explosions,” recalled Serena Vezzoni, who lost a friend in the disaster. “It was like a war zone.” Her home was shielded from the blast by five other buildings that were destroyed or badly damaged.

A quick-thinking station master saved hundreds of lives by halting two passenger trains that were approaching Viareggio. The accident happened close to the station before midnight on Monday.

Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), Italy’s state-owned railways, said the first five of 14 wagons carrying LPG derailed and fell to their sides, probably because one of the first wagons suffered a break in its undercarriage.

Gas leaked from the first wagon and later exploded. The locomotive did not derail and its two drivers managed to flee in time, co-workers said.

FS said the 14 wagons were owned by GATX Rail Austria, part of US-based GATX which was responsible for maintenance. In Vienna, GATX Rail Austria said that it saw no connection between the cause of the accident and its wagons.

FS said the German railways safety office had last certified the freight wagons on March 2. Documentation showed their cargo was within the allowable maximum of 80 tonnes.

The first wagon was registered to PKP, the Polish railway company, and the remaining 13 to German railway Deutsche Bahn, FS said. Deutsche Bahn denied it was registered to them and a FS official later said it was possible another German company was involved.

The train had left Trecate in the north-west region of Piedmont and was heading to the southern town of Gricignano, near Naples, officials said.

A freight driver operating the same route blamed the accident on cuts in safety, saying components were not being changed as often as in the past. Union officials expressed similar views, saying similar derailments of freight cars had gone unreported recently because no injuries had been caused.

But an FS spokesman denied that safety had been downgraded, saying FS had spent €4.5bn ($6.3bn) over the past four to five years in new technology and improving safety. He said FS was “one of the safest railway companies in Europe with a decreasing rate of accidents since 1996”.

Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, went to Viareggio where he was heckled by some residents and applauded by others.

It was Italy’s most deadly rail accident since January 2005 when 17 people were killed when a passenger train collided with a freight train near Bologna.

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