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Police make arrest citing recklessness in crash in Spain

| Friday, July 26, 2013, 8:51 p.m.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — Investigations into Spain's deadliest train crash in decades have only begun, but already a key question has been answered: Experts said Friday that the driver, not a computer, was responsible for applying the brakes because no “fail-safe” system has been installed on the dangerous stretch of bending track.

The question of whether the brakes failed — or were never used — in the approach to Santiago de Compostela may remain open until police can question the injured driver and analyze the data on the train's just-recovered “black box.”

Police announced they had arrested 52-year-old Francisco Jose Garzon Amo on suspicion of reckless driving because the train hit the turn Wednesday traveling far faster than its posted 50 mph limit. The train's eight carriages packed with 218 passengers tumbled off the tracks into a concrete wall, and diesel fuel powering the engine sent flames coursing through some cabins.

As the first funeral ceremonies began Friday night, authorities working from a sports arena-turned-morgue announced they had positively identified 75 of the 78 people killed in the crash.

They lowered the death toll from 80 after determining that some severed body parts had wrongly been attributed to different victims.

Adif, Spain's railway agency, confirmed that a high-tech automatic braking program called the European Rail Traffic Management System was installed on most of the high-speed track leading from Madrid north to Santiago de Compostela — but the cutting-edge coverage stops just 3 miles south of the site of the crash, placing a greater burden on the driver to take charge.

Adif spokeswoman Maria Carmen Palao said the driver from that point on had sole control of the brakes and when to use them. She said even European Rail Traffic Management technology might not have been powerful enough to stop a speeding train in time.

Gonzalo Ferre, Adif's president, said the driver should have started slowing the train 2.5 miles before the dangerous bend, which comes immediately after the trains exit a tunnel.

Spain's state-run train company, Renfe, described Amo as an experienced driver who knew the Madrid-Santiago route well. It said he had driven that train about 60 times in the past year.

An American passenger, Stephen Ward, said he was watching the train's speed on a carriage display screen — and reported that the train accelerated, not slowed, as it headed for disaster.

He said moments before the crash, the display indicated 121 mph, more than double the speed limit, whereas earlier in the journey, he saw speeds averaging nearer 60 mph.

Ward, an 18-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah, told The Associated Press that seconds after he saw the surprisingly high speed, “the train lifted up off the track. It was like a roller coaster.” He recalled a backpack falling from the rack above him as his last memory before being knocked out.

When Ward awoke, he said someone helped him crawl out of a ditch. He thought he was dreaming until he felt his blood-drenched face and began to grasp the scene around him.

Jaime Iglesias, police chief of Spain's northwest Galicia region, said Amo would be questioned “as a suspect for a crime linked to the cause of the accident.” When asked, Iglesias described Amo's alleged offense as “recklessness.” He declined to elaborate.

Catholic Church authorities in Virginia identified the dead American as Ana Maria Cordoba, 47. She had been traveling to Santiago de Compostela to meet up with her youngest son, also named Santiago, who had just completed the area's celebrated religious trek through the mountains of northern Spain: El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James.”

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