PECROT, Belgium (AP) — A crowded commuter train slammed head on into an oncoming locomotive outside Brussels on Tuesday, killing at least eight people and injuring nine in Belgium's worst rail accident since 1974.
The death toll was expected to rise as emergency services cut into the wreckage to search for more bodies or survivors. One child was among those killed.
An empty train was riding on the wrong side of the tracks at about 55 mph when it crashed into a train crowded with rush-hour passengers in the village of Pecrot, some 15 miles east of Brussels, said Leen Uyterhoeven, spokeswoman for the national SNCB-NMBS rail company.
"There was a noise like two giant tin cans crashing together," said local resident Anna-Marie Choumuerthe. "I went out to see what happened. I heard and saw people at the windows screaming."
Hours after the 8:45 a.m. crash, rescue workers where still trying to get to some of the passengers. The injured were ferried to several local hospitals. The drivers of both trains were killed.
The four carriages of the southbound passenger train were crushed on impact as the empty train plowed into them, ending up on top of one passenger car. The mangled leading carriage of the empty train was pointing skyward resting on the other train below.
"It's more than certain a human error was at the origin," SNCB-NMBS CEO Etienne Schouppe said.
Rail officials believe that the conductor of the empty train failed to notice a red signal light at the previous station before heading off toward Leuven.
Just before the crash, rail controllers in Brussels noticed that the two trains were on the same track and headed for each other. They tried to cut power to the line, which would have automatically triggered the emergency brakes.
"It was too late to prevent the collision," Schouppe said. "We have had smaller rail accidents of course, but this sort of accident has not happened in 20 years."
Belgium's last major train crash was actually in 1974, and killed 18 people.
King Albert and Queen Paola visited a crisis center where survivors, passengers in shock and families of victims were cared for. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt postponed a trip to Central Europe and headed to the scene.
Rescue workers wrapped the dead in silvery gray body bags and took them away on stretchers
The disaster could have been worse. The trains tottered, but stayed on rails. If derailed, they would have rolled off the embankment on to the village houses below.
"I saw a black cloud of smoke rise up, the train was rocking back and forward, wobbling," said local resident Ameile Jassont, 54, whose home stands next to the track. "It all happened so fast."
In 1974, eighteen people died when a train derailed in southern Belgium, the last major accident in Belgium.
A crisis center was set up in the nearby town of Wavre.