China passenger train collision kills at least 66, injures hundreds

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Associated Press Writer

BEIJING (AP) -- A high-speed passenger train jumped its tracks and slammed into another train in eastern China on Monday, killing at least 66 people and injuring hundreds. Authorities were quoted as saying human error was to blame.

Seventy people were in critical condition after the pre-dawn crash in a rural area in Shandong province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The injured included four French nationals who were hospitalized with bone fractures, it said.

State television said 247 were injured while Xinhua said more than 400 had been hospitalized. No foreigners were among the dead.

The accident just before the May Day long weekend holiday happened when a train traveling from Beijing to the coastal city of Qingdao derailed and hit a second passenger train just before dawn. About 10 of the first train's carriages toppled into a dirt ditch, Xinhua reported.

The second train, traveling from Yantai to Xuzhou, was knocked off its tracks although it stayed upright. News photos showed one of its carriages sitting across the train tracks.

Xinhua reported that authorities said human error caused the first train to derail outside the city of Zibo and had ruled out terrorism. It did not say what the error was, but said two high-ranking railway officials in Shandong had been fired.

News photos showed rescuers pulling passengers from a carriage sitting on its side. Survivors bundled in white bed sheets from the sleeper cars stood or sat near the wreckage.

Xinhua said bloodstained sheets and broken thermos flasks could be seen on the ground beside the twisted train cars.

It did not say how many people were on both trains for the overnight trips.

"Most passengers were still asleep, but some were standing in the aisle waiting to get off at the Zibo railway station," one passenger surnamed Zhang told Xinhua.

"I suddenly felt the train, like a roller coaster, topple ... to one side and all the way to the other side. When it finally went off the tracks, many people fell on me," Zhang said.

Zhang, who was on the train from Bejing, was injured when the train toppled into farmland beside the track. She said local villagers used farm tools to smash train windows to pull out trapped passengers.

"I saw a girl who was trying to help her boyfriend out of the train, but he was dead," Zhang said.

A 38-year-old woman told Xinhua that she and daughter, 13, escaped unhurt by scrambling through a huge crack in the floor of their carriage.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were monitoring the situation, China Central Television reported. Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang and Railways Minister Liu Zhijun were headed to the site to oversee rescue efforts.

Nine hotels and 34 rescue centers were set up for the families of the victims, Xinhua said.

It said the accident had cut traffic on the rail line that links the provincial capital of Jinan with Qingdao, the site of the sailing competition for the Olympic Games in August.

It was the second major railway accident in Shandong this year. In January, 18 people died when a train hurtling through the night at more than 75 miles per hour slammed into a group of about 100 workers carrying out track maintenance near the city of Anqiu.

According to the news Web site, it was the worst train accident in China since 1997, when another collision killed 126 people.

Trains are the most popular way to travel in China, and the country's overloaded rail network carried 1.36 billion passengers last year, Xinhua said. That is slightly behind India, which had 1.4 billion passengers last year, according to the Indian National Railways Web site.