LONDON -- British authorities ordered a public inquiry into yesterday's fiery collision of two packed trains that killed 26 people, injured about 160 and shook an already beleaguered railroad industry.
Mangled and charred cars were overturned, and a plume of black smoke hovered over the scene as the morning rush hour was transformed into a life-and-death struggle with rescuers attempting to free passengers.
A temporary morgue was established at the accident site, two miles west of London's Paddington Station.
Last night, as workers temporarily suspended their search for bodies, the country was trying to come to terms with yet another horrifying crash on one of the country's busier routes, the main western approach to the capital.
It was the second fatal accident in two years along the same stretch of tracks to strike Great Western Trains. In September 1997, seven people were killed in a collision between a passenger train and a freight train, a crash that is still being unraveled in public hearings, though Great Western has been fined almost $2.5 million for "dereliction of duty."
After the crash, rail chiefs closed Paddington, which serves 85,000 riders daily, including travelers on a new high-speed service to Heathrow Airport.
Authorities said it was too early to determine the cause of the accident, which took place at 8: 11 a.m. between a high-speed Great Western train heading eastbound from Cheltenham to Paddington, and a westbound Thames Trains two-car local. More than 500 passengers were aboard the trains, authorities said.
The collision came in a junction area in the Ladbroke Grove section of London, apparently as the westbound local train was attempting to change tracks.
Some unconfirmed reports said that the Thames train went through a red light.
Passengers reported hearing loud bangs, shattering glass and crunching metal, and described scenes of chaos and terror as fire scorched four rail cars and trapped victims cried for help.
'An almighty bang'
"I was thinking, 'God, please don't let me die,' " passenger Stuart Allen recounted. "You've got flames. You've got smoke. You've got a big bang. You've just got to think the worst."
"I felt an almighty bang," David Taylor told reporters. "I looked up, and I could see the front of the coach was on fire. There were balls of flames coming down both sides."
Well-dressed commuters clambered to safety, pulling one another from the wreckage.
Cashiers and stock workers at a nearby supermarket rushed to the scene to aid scores of dazed survivors as fire and ambulance units raced through the capital.
"I could see people with blood pouring down their faces," said Joe Bannerman. "Someone was running with their clothes on fire. I could see lots of people were burned badly on their faces and hands. They were shouting 'Help! Help! Get us out!' "
Alan Marco, a passenger on the Great Western train, told reporters: "Outside there was flaming debris going past, and there was smoke everywhere. It was very frightening, but we managed to get off. We were all very shocked, and it seemed to take an age to get off the train."
Victims -- some suffering from burns, broken bones and smoke inhalation -- were rushed to area hospitals.
More than a dozen were seriously injured.
"We will get to the bottom of everything that happened in this particular tragedy," said Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, visiting the scene of the accident.
It was the country's deadliest railway accident since 35 people were killed at London's Clapham Junction in December 1988.
With millions of commuters riding the rails daily, trains form a vital link in Britain's transportation policy, especially in moving workers through a teeming capital where automobiles often move no faster than horse-drawn carriages.
Once controlled by state-owned British Rail, the industry has been transformed by privatization during the 1990s, with 25 companies overseeing passenger services, while another firm controls the system's infrastructure.
Industry critics contend that service and reliability are being stretched as passenger traffic continues to grow.
But safety has improved, according to statistics, with injuries and fatalities declining in the last five-year period.
The government recently ordered the phaseout of some aging rolling stock.
It also announced plans to introduce an automated protection and warning system to prevent trains from running through red lights on key routes and junctions.
London's Evening Standard wrote yesterday, "There is real rage among rail users, who pay some of the world's highest fares for poor service, unpunctual and often filthy trains and also -- it seems -- the risk of death or injury. What is going on?"
While Britain's train system has now endured two fatal crashes in two years, it remains fundamentally safe, according to Robert Preston, an editor of Railway Gazette International, a trade publication.
"The picture is perhaps more complex then it was before," he said.
"Critics like to say there is an incentive for companies to go for profits over safety. There is no meaningful evidence of that."
Pub Date: 10/06/99