BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A bus driver gambled and tried to rush across railroad tracks Tuesday despite a barrier, bells and flashing lights, setting off a chain-reaction collision with two trains that killed 11 people and injured hundreds in Argentina’s capital.
The shocking accident, captured on video, came as little surprise to many in Buenos Aires, where 440 people and 165 vehicles were hit by trains last year, causing a total of 269 deaths.
In the latest accident, the bus got halfway across the first track before an oncoming passenger train crushed it against a concrete station platform. The collision forced the train’s first two cars off the rails and into another locomotive that was leaving the station in the other direction.
The bus driver was among those killed, and 212 were injured, including about 20 people in critical condition, said Alberto Crescenti, director-general of Argentina’s emergency medical system. Nine people died at the scene, police said, and two others in hospitals, according to the city’s health ministry.
The engineer in the train that hit the bus was trapped in the crumpled metal, and rescuers had to break his leg to get him out. He also broke a hip and his chest was crushed, though he is expected to survive, union leader Omar Maturano told The Associated Press. The other train’s engineer was operated on for a foot injury.
Maturano blamed “how we are as Argentines, that we immediately lift the barriers and cross despite flashing warning signals.”
“It’s a cultural problem. There are many people who are accustomed to beating the train,” he said.
Emergency officials were still trying to extricate bodies from under the wreckage hours after the crash.
The collision happened at 6:15 a.m. during the busy morning rush hour in the capital’s densely populated Flores neighborhood, when many parents use public transportation to take their children to school. Children were among the injured, according to Argentine Transportation Secretary J.P. Schiavi.
There are hundreds of street-level train crossings in the Argentine capital, and their danger increases at rush hour, particularly next to stations, where trains can arrive every four minutes — so frequently that the crossing barriers remain down most of the time.
While a train is pausing for passengers at a station, there is no way for a driver or pedestrian to know whether the adjacent barrier is blocking street traffic because of that train, or because another train is rushing in from the opposition direction. Buildings line the tracks, making it impossible to see what’s coming.
The busy Sarmiento line where Tuesday’s accident occurred connects the suburb of Moreno to the capital’s center, and has more street-level crossings than any other in Buenos Aires. A $1.2 billion project to move its tracks into an underground tunnel has been delayed for more than a decade due to legal objections from neighbors and financing problems.
Another hazard of Argentina’s British-built train system is that trains still move on the left, while roadway driving switched to the right-hand side in 1945, when the Pan-American highway was completed. As a result, some drivers and pedestrians instinctively look the wrong way for approaching trains.
Suicides represent a large part of the death toll, although it’s impossible to know what percentage. Video cameras mounted on the front of trains have shown people throwing themselves onto the tracks. The carnage means that a 55-year-old engineer with three decades of service has likely hit 30 people, Maturano said.
“We kill more than a police officer or a soldier,” he said, praising the government’s offer of post-traumatic stress syndrome treatment to workers.
The company that operates the passenger trains issued a statement Tuesday expressing condolences to the victims and stressing that all three automatic warning systems — flashing lights, ringing bells and the physical barrier, were working when the bus tried to cross.
A video taken from the street and broadcast in Argentina, however, showed the red and white-painted arm at a 45-degree angle, narrowly enabling the bus to pass underneath.
It’s not clear from the video why the arm didn’t lower all the way down, although people sometimes manually raise barriers so that vehicles can get through. Maturano said the end of the barrier appeared broken and may have been forced. “When this happens, the barriers don’t lower properly thereafter,” he said.
The TBA said it had dispatched doctors, psychologists and accident specialists to counsel the victims, and is providing videos and any other information necessary to aid a police investigation.