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Spain to mourn train crash victims; driver freed pending trial

A Spanish National police officer stands next to wrecked parts of a train at a warehouse in Escravitude, 20 km (12 miles) from Santiago de C
A Spanish National police officer stands next to wrecked parts of a train at a warehouse in Escravitude, 20 km (12 miles) from Santiago de C

By Tracy Rucinski

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain (Reuters) - Spain was to hold a memorial service on Monday for the 79 people who died in the country's worst rail disaster in decades, hours after the driver of the train was freed pending trial on charges of reckless homicide.

The ceremony takes place at 1900 (1 p.m.ET) in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a world-famous pilgrimage city in northwestern Spain where the high-speed train derailed.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, several ministers and the King's children Prince Felipe and Infanta Elena will attend.

At 2041 local time on Wednesday the eight-carriage, high-speed train crumpled and caught fire after slamming into a concrete wall. The impact was so strong that one of the carriages was thrown several meters over an embankment.

The death toll rose to 79 after one injured person - a woman from the United States - died on Sunday. Seventy people remain in hospital, with 22 in critical condition.

The train driver, Francisco Garzon, 52, appeared to take the train too fast through a tight curve. He had been under arrest since Thursday.

Examining Magistrate Luis Alaez formally charged Garzon with "79 counts of homicide and numerous offences of bodily harm, all of them committed through professional recklessness," the court said in a statement on Sunday night.

In a closed-door hearing, Garzon admitted taking the curve too fast, blaming it on a momentary lapse, according to media reports.

Among conditions of his release, Garzon was ordered to surrender his passport and check in regularly with the court.

None of the parties in the case, which include state train operator Renfe, state railway firm Adif and two insurance companies, had asked for Garzon to be jailed pending trial, and he was not seen as a flight risk, the court statement said.

INVESTIGATION

Garzon has worked for Renfe for 30 years, 10 as a driver. His father also worked for the service and he grew up in Renfe-owned housing in northwestern Spain.

Neither lawyers nor members of Garzon's family could be reached for comment.

The investigation will also look at whether the train, the tracks or safety systems were at fault.

The Alvia train involved in the accident, one of three types of high-speed service that run in Spain, received a full maintenance check on the morning of the journey, the head of Renfe said, and security systems were in good shape.

The Alvia trains run both on traditional tracks, where drivers must heed warning systems to reduce speed, and on high-speed tracks where a more sophisticated security system will automatically slow down trains that are going too fast.

At the section of the track where the accident happened, it was up to the driver to respond to prompts to slow down.

The city of Santiago was meant to be celebrating the yearly festival of St. James on July 25, with thousands of Christian pilgrims arriving after walking the famous Camino de Santiago trail.

A week of concerts and other cultural events was cancelled after the train crash on the eve of the festival. On Sunday, black ribbons of mourning hung on the empty stages that had been set up.

At the cathedral gates, along with flowers and candles commemorating the dead, some people left walking sticks from their journeys and others placed shells, the symbol of St. James and badge of honor for the pilgrims who complete the journey.

(Writing by Elisabeth O'Leary and Julien Toyer; Editing by John Stonestreet)

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