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State-owned train operator Renfe said it couldn’t confirm how many staff were on board the train. It said the crash happened at 8.41 p.m. (1841 GMT) about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) south of Santiago de Compostela.
Spanish media said the train had two drivers aboard and both survived.
Renfe said it and Adif, another state-owned company that manages tracks, signals and other railway infrastructure, were cooperating with a judge appointed to investigate the accident.
It was the world’s third major rail accident this month.
On July 12, six people were killed and nearly 200 were injured when four cars of a passenger train derailed south of Paris.
On July 6, 72 cars carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Ontario, setting off explosions and fires that killed 47 people.
Catholic pilgrims converge on Santiago de Compostela annually to celebrate a festival honoring St. James, a disciple of Jesus whose remains are said to rest in a shrine. The city is the main gathering point for those who reach the end of the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that has drawn Christians since the Middle Ages.
Several injured passengers said they felt a strong vibration just before the cars jumped the tracks, according to Xabier Martinez, a photographer who talked with them after arriving at the scene as rescue workers were still removing bodies.
One passenger, Ricardo Montero, told the Cadena Ser radio station that "when the train reached that bend it began to flip over, many times, with some carriages ending up on top of others, leaving many people trapped below. We had to get under the carriages to get out."
Another passenger, Sergio Prego, told Cadena Ser the train "traveled very fast" just before it derailed and the cars flipped upside down, on their sides and into the air.
"I’ve been very lucky because I’m one of the few able to walk out," Prego said.
The Alvia 730 series train started from Madrid and was scheduled to end its journey at El Ferrol, about 60 miles north of Santiago de Compostela. Alvias operate high-speed services but do not go as fast as Spain’s fastest bullet trains, called AVEs.
The maximum Alvia speed is 155 mph on tracks made especially for the AVEs, and they travel at a maximum speed of 137 mph on normal gauge rails.
Other major train crashes in Spain include a 1944 accident involving three trains that crashed in a tunnel. That disaster produced wildly disputed death tolls ranging from the government’s official count of 78 to more than 500, according to later research.
In 2006, 43 people died when a subway train crashed because of excessive speed in the southern city of Valencia. In 2004, 191 died when al-Qaida-inspired terrorists detonated 10 bombs on four Madrid commuter trains.
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