MADRID -- A passenger train derailed Wednesday night on a curvy stretch of track in northwestern Spain, killing at least 40 people caught inside toppled cars and injuring more than 140 in the country's worst rail accident in decades, officials said.
Bodies were covered in blankets next to the tracks and rescue workers tried to get trapped people out of the train's cars, with smoke billowing from some of the wreckage. Some passengers were pulled out of broken windows, and one man stood atop a carriage lying on its side, using a pickaxe to try to smash through a window. Images showed one car pointing up into the air with one of its ends twisted and disfigured, and another severed in two.
Officials gave differing death tolls in the immediate aftermath of the crash just outside Santiago de Compostela, on the eve of the city's annual religious festival that attracts tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world.
Alberto Nunez Feijoo, president of the region of Galicia where Santiago de Compostela is the capital, said at least 40 people died.
But the president of Galicia's main court, Miguel Angel Cadenas, was quoted from the scene by the Cadena Ser radio station saying
Rescue workers were still searching through the smoldering wreckage of the train's cars this morning in the pre-dawn darkness.
State-owned train operator Renfe said in a statement that 218 passengers and an unspecified number of staff were on board the eight-carriage train during the 8:41 p.m. crash on a section of tracks about 2.5 miles from Santiago de Compostela that came online two years ago .
Renfe and track operator Adif were cooperating with a judge who has been appointed to investigate the accident, Renfe said.
A regional Galicia health official, Rocio Mosquera, told reporters early this morning that more than 140 passengers from the train had been treated at area hospitals, with their conditions ranging from light injuries to serious and some still in surgery hours after the crash.
Officials in Santiago de Compostela canceled ceremonies planned for today, when Catholic pilgrims converge on the city to celebrate a festival honoring St. James, the disciple of Jesus whose remains are said to rest in a shrine. The city is the main gathering point for the faithful who make it to the end of the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that has drawn Christians since the Middle Ages.