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Mozambique Grieves for Crash Victims

May 26, 2002

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TENGA, Mozambique (AP) _ The tiny village of Tenga was shrouded in despair Sunday, a day after the worst rail accident in Mozambique history killed about 200 people at a railway station here.

Eighteen of the village’s few hundred residents were killed in Saturday’s accident, in which a passenger train careened down a hill into a freight train. The victims included several children and three people from a single family. Two other members of that family were missing.

The burying of the dead began Sunday.

``There is much sorrow here,″ said Paul Wamba, 38, whose nephew and several friends were killed. ``The people are consoling each other. They do not know what to do.″

Rail officials said the train developed a mechanical fault as it descended a hill, so the driver disconnected the passenger section at the back of the train and drove the front section carrying freight to Tenga station.

The driver wedged four large stones under the wheels of the passenger train to prevent it from sliding down the hill, but the stones apparently came loose and the train barreled down the tracks into the freight train, said Antonio Libombo, an official with the Mozambican Railway Company.

``An investigation is still under way,″ Transport Minister Tomes Salaam said. ``But at first glance, the crash was caused by a human error.″

About 200 people were killed, though official figures varied. The train was carrying weekend visitors to South Africa.

At Tenga, investigators in white coats scoured the railway station for clues. Bulldozers swept the crumpled remains of the railway coaches off the track, which reopened by Sunday afternoon.

A pile of twisted wreckage remained beside the track, watched over by an armed guard.

In the dirt lay the remains of passengers’ possessions _ broken plates, an old doll, shoes and broken beer bottles.

``It was like an explosion,″ said one railway worker who witnessed the crash and spoke on condition of anonymity.

He described how he and other villagers worked to free the injured from the wreckage as cries of pain filled the air.

Gabriel Sitoe, 43, whose house lies just a few hundred yards from the station, said he was woken up by the sounds of the 5 a.m. crash and went to help.

``I saw people who had lost their arms, their legs,″ he said. ``They were crying for help.″

A single ambulance arrived on the scene 90 minutes after the crash, while a handful of private cars loaded up many of the injured and drove them to the hospital.

Eventually, a priest managed to get a truck to carry large numbers of people to the capital, Maputo, but that was more than two hours after the crash, Sitoe said.

In Maputo, hundreds responded to calls to donate blood to the approximately 400 injured. People also brought bags of oranges and clothing to the main hospital.

As angry relatives of the victims demanded answers, President Joaquim Chissano called on Mozambicans to unite in their grief but wait for the investigation to conclude before placing blame.

``At this emotional time, people should not jump to conclusions, otherwise we may cause other problems for the (victims’) families and relatives,″ he said.

Chissano called the accident a national tragedy and declared three days of mourning. Flags around the country were lowered to half-staff and political leaders and civic groups sent messages of condolence to victims’ families.

Fatal railway crashes blamed on human error are frequent in this southern African nation, and Chissano demanded better training of railway personnel.