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Germans Search Train for Bodies

June 4, 1998

ESCHEDE, Germany (AP) _ Using cranes and jackhammers, hundreds of workers lifted chunks of a collapsed overpass off crumpled train cars today, searching for those trapped when the swiftest train on Germany’s rails jumped the tracks.

At least 92 people died when the lead locomotive of the Munich-to-Hamburg InterCity Express broke loose at 125 mph Wednesday morning, leaving behind 12 passenger cars and a second locomotive that careened off the tracks and crunched together like an accordion.

A weekly newspaper, the Rheinischer Merkur, reported today that experts from the federal railway office found signs that one of the coaches derailed 3 3/4 miles before the overpass.

The section continued along the rail bed until a bend near the overpass, the newspaper said.

Police in Celle said parts of a train were found on the track 3 3/4 miles from the bridge, but they gave no details on the parts and were uncertain whether they were from the crashed train.

Railroad spokesman Martin Katz said investigators were studying the train’s ``black box″ for clues to the crash. In the meantime, all 100 InterCity Express trains were ordered to slow down to a maximum 100 mph instead of the previous top speed of 175 mph.

Rescue workers expected to recover more bodies today from a first-class car and a severed dining car still wedged beneath the ruins of the overpass at Eschede, 35 miles north of Hanover.

``We think the chances of finding further survivors are very small,″ police spokesman Peter Hoppe said.

The four parallel tracks were strewn with stray wheels, shards of metal and other debris _ much of it the result of rescuers cutting and smashing their way into the mangled hulks of train cars.

In Eschede, a red-roofed town of 4,000, residents brought blankets for survivors and coffee and food to exhausted rescue workers.

``How could we know that this horrible thing would happen in this beautiful place?″ said Bernd Schlawer, 45, who provided a place to stay for one man from Hanover who had come searching for his wife.

Christoph Kuenkel, the local Lutheran pastor, prepared for a memorial service this evening. Loudspeakers and bleacher seats were installed outside for those who won’t be able to crowd into the simple, yellow wooden building.

Twenty-four hours after the accident, there were no firm estimates of how many people were on board the train, or how many survivors might have walked away from the crash.

Officials continued to give varying death tolls. Police said 90 bodies were recovered so far, two more people died in the hospital, and 95 had been treated in hospitals for serious injuries. Lower Saxony state officials earlier said 100 people were killed and 200 people were injured.

The tragedy was the worst on Germany’s rails since World War II. Flags flew at half-staff at all public buildings today, rail workers wore black ribbons. Upon hearing the news, many Germans rushed to donate blood.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who cut short a trip to Italy to return home, visited the disaster scene this afternoon, pledging $550,000 in immediate government aid.

His challenger in national elections in September, Lower Saxony state governor Gerhard Schroeder, also arrived today and offered to help victims. ``This has brought more Germans closer together than in a long time,″ Schroeder said.

It remained unclear why the lead locomotive decoupled from the rest of the train.

Photos of the scene showed that five cars cleared the overpass before derailing. Still pushed by the rear engine, the others jumped the tracks into the concrete supports of the overpass, collapsing it and jackknifing into each other.

Oblivious to the catastrophe, the driver of the lead locomotive continued through the Eschede train station until the station master engaged the emergency brake.

``There is no indication that the derailment was anything other than an accident,″ Hoppe said.

Deutsche Bahn executive Peter Muenschwander confirmed that two workers doing signal maintenance on an adjacent track were still missing and presumed dead. Their car was crushed beneath the debris; it was unclear whether it had been parked along the tracks or on the overpass.

At the accident site, a red crane hoisted a severed train car from the overpass today so workers with jackhammers could pull apart the overpass to reach the crushed train cars beneath.

``Then there was a loud boom, a dust cloud, and then silence,″ Hannelore Domkewitz, who was peeling potatoes at her kitchen window when she saw the train speed by just before the crash.

One passenger from a rear car told SAT 1 TV that he felt a jarring rattle minutes before the accident.

``I held on and ducked down because you had the feeling you’d be thrown through the air,″ Wolf-Ruediger Schliebener said. ``Thank God, it came to a standstill.″

More than 1,100 rescue workers rushed to the scene, including trauma surgeons.

The accident was the worst on Germany’s premier ICE line, inaugurated in 1991 and prized for both its speed and safety.

The crash prompted Japan’s railway company to begin a special inspection of its high-speed bullet train lines today and send a representative to the accident site in Germany.

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