BEIJING – A high-speed passenger train jumped its tracks and slammed into another train in eastern China on Monday, killing at least 70 people and injuring more than 400 in China's worst train accident in a decade.
Some passengers were sleeping and others were standing in the aisle waiting to get off in Zibo when their train toppled into a ditch "like a roller coaster" and slammed into the other train.
China reacted swiftly, sending top officials and soldiers to the scene, and sacking two railway officials.
Authorities were quoted as saying that human error was to blame. The official Xinhua News Agency also said one of the trains was traveling over its speed limit.
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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. The death toll could rise, with 70 people hospitalized in critical condition, according to Xinhua.
Security was tight near the scene of the accident, in a rural part of Shandong province, with roads to the crash site sealed by police and nearby roads lined by paramilitary and police vehicles.
A total of 420 people had been hurt, Xinhua said. No foreigners were among the dead. Injured survivors included four French nationals, a Chinese national sailing team coach and a 3-year-old boy.
The injured were scattered at hospitals throughout the region, and patient wards were quiet by Monday night. Ten people were forced to sleep in the hallway of the packed orthopedic surgery floor at Zibo Central Hospital, including a teenage boy whose mother had rushed in from Beijing.
The woman, who was resting on a narrow cot next to her son's hospital bed, said she had just arrived and did not know details about the accident.
"My son just fell asleep, please don't wake him," she whispered, stroking his hand and refusing to answer any questions.
A man curled on a blanket on the floor nearby snored loudly, the sounds echoing down the quiet hallway.
Some 1,000 soldiers and armed police were sent to the crash site to seal it off and help with the rescue work, Xinhua said. Heavy cranes were used to move the wrecked rail cars, and workers aimed to reopen the line by early Tuesday, a little more than 24 hours after the accident.
Wooden railroad ties were stacked atop a line of trucks parked near the site, and soldiers were seen driving in backhoes and other machinery.
Trains are the most popular way to travel in China, and the country's overloaded rail network carried 1.36 billion passengers last year. While accidents are rare, the government is trying to extend and upgrade the state-run rail network and introduce more high-speed trains.
The crash just before the May Day weekend holiday happened when a train traveling from Beijing to Qingdao — site of the sailing competition during the Olympics in August — derailed and hit a second passenger train just before dawn. Nine of the first train's carriages were knocked into a dirt ditch, Railway Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said in a statement.
The second train, on its way from Yantai in Shandong to Xuzhou in eastern Jiangsu province, was knocked off its tracks although it stayed upright. News photos showed several of its carriages sitting across the train tracks just outside the city of Zibo.
"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 Beijing, 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.
Shandong is one of China's richest provinces with a population of around 93 million, a large manufacturing industry, and thriving port at Qingdao.
A coach of China's sailing team, Hu Weidong, was seriously injured in the accident, Dr. Zhang Jun, head of the orthopedics department at the Zibo Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, was quoted as saying.
Zhang said a 3-year-old boy, Liu Jinhang, was probably the youngest injured, but he was in stable condition after being treated for a broken arm.
A 38-year-old woman told Xinhua that she and her 13-year-old daughter escaped unhurt by scrambling through a huge crack in the floor of their carriage.
Xinhua said investigators had ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash. Its English report said it was human error, while its Chinese-language report attributed the crash to negligence.
It also said the Beijing train was traveling at 132 kilometers (82 miles) an hour at the time of the crash, over the speed limit of 80 kilometers (50 miles) an hour, citing investigators.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao issued directives urging an all-out rescue effort, Xinhua said, and Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang and Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun were immediately sent to oversee the rescue operation.
Xinhua said both the director of the Railway Bureau in Jinan, the provincial capital and nearest big city, and the bureau's Communist Party secretary were sacked after the crash, and they face an investigation by the Ministry of Railways.
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 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour slammed into a group of about 100 workers carrying out track maintenance near the city of Anqiu.
According to the 163.com news Web site, it was the worst train accident in China since 1997, when another collision killed 126 people.