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Spain mourns crash victims as train driver charged

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Mourners gathered at a memorial service Monday for the 79 people killed in Spain's worst train disaster in decades, after the driver was charged with reckless homicide.

The judge released the driver on bail, charged with 79 counts of reckless homicide, said the regional high court in Santiago de Compostela, the northwestern pilgrimage city where the train crashed on Wednesday.

Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, 52, admitted to the judge that he had had a "lapse" of concentration while driving the train, Spanish media reported on Monday, citing court sources.

The heir to the Spanish throne Prince Felipe and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a native of Santiago, were scheduled to attend the service at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT) in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, a popular Roman Catholic pilgrimage destination.

Garzon left court after a two-hour hearing Sunday by car for an unknown location. Press photographs showed him in handcuffs, a gash on his head from the accident and his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

He has been ordered to report to court once a week and forbidden to leave Spain for six months. His train-driving licence has been suspended for six months.

Regional health officials on Sunday said a US woman critically injured in the crash had died in hospital, bringing the toll to 79 including nine foreigners.

Sixty-nine people were still in hospital, with 22 of them in serious condition including two children, the regional health ministry said.

Mourners placed flowers and candles at the cathedral gates, with handwritten messages of condolence.

"People are praying. It is a great tragedy," said 70-year-old Marlen de Francisco, a souvenir seller at the cathedral square.

"All day people are asking me for note paper so they can write messages and put them on the cathedral gates."

Reports suggested the train was travelling at more than double the speed limit when it flew off the tracks on a sharp bend and ploughed into a siding on the outskirts of Santiago.

El Pais newspaper, citing investigation sources, reported that Garzon had told railway officials by radio that the train had taken the curve at 190 kilometres (118 miles) an hour -- more than double the 80 kph speed limit for that section of track.

A court source said investigators would on Tuesday analyse data from the train's "black box" recorder, which is expected to tell them how fast the train was going and what action the driver took.

The president of the Spanish rail network administrator ADIF, Gonzalo Ferre, said Garzon had been warned to start slowing the train "four kilometres before the accident happened".

State railway company Renfe said the driver had been with the firm for 30 years, including 13 years as a driver, and had driven trains past the spot of the accident 60 times.

Friends and colleagues of Garzon have defended him, including UGT labour union official Angel Rodriguez who described him as "an excellent professional".

El Mundo newspaper on Sunday printed extracts from the train's route plan, indicating that ahead of the bend the train passed from a stretch of track with a speed limit of 220 kph to one with a limit of 80 kph.

Some media reports described Garzon as a speed freak who had once posted a picture on his Facebook page of a train speedometer at 200 kph.

Renfe said the train had no technical problems and had just passed an inspection on the morning of the accident.

But the secretary general of Spain's train drivers' union, Juan Jesus Garcia Fraile, told public radio the track was not equipped with braking technology to slow the train down automatically if the driver failed to do so when required.

El Mundo quoted Ferre as admitting that the accident could have been avoided if the track had been equipped with such a system, which is in place on many high-speed railways.

Cranes and trucks finished removing the wrecked train carriages from the track on Sunday on the outskirts of the city and rail traffic resumed there early Monday at low speed.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130729/spain-mourns-crash-victims-train-driver-charged-1