Mass Casualty Incident: Spanish Train Derailment, Part 1

By George Potter

Mass casualty incidents can be pure nightmares for emergency responders if they are not prepared for the multiple demands of human and material resources, command structure, communications, and support measures that will be necessary to manage and resolve the situation smoothly and safely. Unfortunately, the local emergency agencies of Galicia in Northwest Spain were not able to meet these demands during the evening of July 24, 2013, and the hours immediately following. 

At 2041 hours, Alvia high speed passenger train covering the Madrid to El Ferrol route of some 600 kilometers (372 miles) derailed in a curve entering the regional capital, Santiago de Compostela, at more than twice the permitted speed of 80 kilometers per hour [50 (miles per hour)]. Inertia provoked the derailment of the engine and two of the following cars, while the third coach broke free of its couplings and was literally hurtled up and over a 15-foot embankment, coming to rest amidst houses. The remaining four coaches and another engine at the end of the convoy also derailed, and a fire broke out in the rear engine.

218 passengers and four rail-line employees were aboard the train at the time of the accident. The incident killed 79, including a pedestrian walking on a path adjacent to the railway. More than a week after the incident, more than a dozen passengers were still hospitalized in critical condition. In fact, no surviving passengers or employees escaped without some degree of injury. A fundamental fact for the judicial investigation still under way is that all four of the employees survived, including the engineer.

This was the second most fatal rail accident in Spain’s history; only the collision between two trains inside a tunnel in the Leon province in 1944 that took between 500 and 800 lives was greater. (The entire history of this accident was covered up by the dictatorial regime of the period. A few weeks later, the tunnel literally disappeared, sealed forever and the rail line rerouted.)



The railway system in Spain is a combination operation between the state-owned Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles (RENFE) and a semi-private company, Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias (ADIF). RENFE owns the infrastructures such as rail lines, stations, rolling stock, and so on, while the ADIF acts as the operator of the diverse lines, especially long and medium distance routes, including the AVE, Spain’s “star” high speed rail system with more than 3,100 kilometers (1,926 miles) of specific lines and the Alvia, a slightly slower system of trains used on mixed high speed and conventional lines. This particular route (Madrid to El Ferrol) operates on some 200 miles of conventional tracks, while the complete high speed line is still under construction. The location of the accident was on a sector of conventional tracks, which is a branch-off line that accesses the Santiago station. The exact site features a tight left-hand curve a few hundred feet out of a tunnel. The nature of this curve requires slowing trains down to the 50 mph limit. The management of both RENFE and ADIF have been implicated in the accident for a number of reasons to be outlined later.



The following is a transcription of the chronological evolution of the incident. The times are indicated in the 24-hour format.

The first alert of the accident received in the regional emergency coordination center—112 (Europe’s equivalent to 911) came from a bystander near the scene at 8:41 p.m., indicating that a train had derailed, there were many victims, and a coach was on fire.

20:44—112 transfers the call to SEIS, the Santiago municipal fire brigade.

20:46—112 informs the fire service, local and state police, the civil protection agency, and ADIF Emergency Operations.

20:47.33—112 again calls the fire service, whose operator requests to speak with the person who made the initial call. This person informs the fire service operator of the location of the incident and what he considers would be the best access to the area.


20:48.29—The first response by the fire service leaves the station. This initial response is composed of one pumper, one tanker, one command car, and eight firefighters including a subofficer who assumes SEIS Incident Command.

20:48.55—Another bystander calls 112 giving more exact information of the location of the accident. Several more communications from fire and police give more details on the exact location.

20:50.12—Another bystander calls informing of derailed coaches and a number of bodies along the tracks.

20:51—The fire brigade first response group arrives and the IC immediately requests reinforcements.

20:51.12—The local emergency medical entity (EME) requests a helicopter, and 112 responds that it would take some 25 minutes to arrive.


20:51.50—112 receives a call from a passenger still aboard the train indicating that he is injured and that there are victims around him.

20:53—EME requests another helicopter; 112 replies that one is on the way.

20:53.25—112 receives several calls from injured passengers who indicate that they are trapped by seats. 112 informs the fire service.

20:54.12—112 receives call that the second helicopter is en route.

20:55—The fire brigade deployment originally assigned to standby at the festivities of the St. James celebrations is dispatched to the accident scene; one pumper, one aerial ladder, and another command car carrying nine firefighters and the SEIS chief officer.

20:57—ADIF informs 112 that the train’s controller is trapped in the engine.

20:57.29—112 communicates this to the fire service, who then request that electrical power to the line be shut down. 112 communicates this to ADIF, who immediately confirms the power cut. 112 informs the fire service.

21:03–21:18—112 requests assistance from several surrounding rural fire services. All but one of these is a private contractor.

21:03.50—The local police request that all off-duty firefighters be recalled. (It was later learned that nearly all off-duty Santiago city firefighters responded, many almost immediately after hearing of the accident.)

21:04.23—112 requests technical information about the train from ADIF Emergencies, whose operator replies that he doesn’t have any data available and that he will call back.

21:05.44—A helicopter pilot communicates that he cannot get to the accident scene because of fog and that the medical team he was transporting is waiting for an ambulance to take them to the scene. (Before writing this report, I was informed by reliable sources that there was no fog in the area at the time of the accident, nor was there any afterward.)

21:05.44—EME informs 112 that ambulance will pick up the two medical teams and transport them to the scene. The other helicopter pilot informs that he cannot take off because of mechanical problems. (This information was also later refutted.)

21:09.07—ADIF Emergency communicates specific data about the train to 112 and, most importantly, the number of occupants.

21:13.09—The state police request more ambulances indicating that there are at least 50 wounded.

21:16.19—112 communicates to the local police that the helicopters cannot respond. The police operator communicates this to an on-scene officer and indicates that he will inform 112. (This communication was confusing.)

21:22.02—Local police request more ambulances. 112 informs the EME.

21:22.47—ADIF informs 112 that they will e.mail a Google Earth photograph of the area.

21:23.10—The regional emergency management agency, AXEGA, informs 112 of the deployment of its mobile command post.



The incident has been evolving for nearly 45 minutes, and the gravity level of the incident has not been declared by AXEGA. (Level 0—Managed by the mayor of the locality; Level 0E—Managed by the local mayor with support from the Galician government; Level 1—Managed by the local delegate of the government; and Level 2—Managed by the general director of emergencies of the regional government.)

At 21:23 hours, the level was apparently still 0, although there has been no official verification that this level had been officially declared.

AXEGA is an entity established by the Galician regional government with the stated mission to manage emergencies in the region. The majority of the senior personnel of this agency are political appointees with little or no knowledge, training, or experience in emergency management.

In most regions of Spain, the professional fire and rescue services do not have competencies in the management of major emergency incidents. The maximum authority is almost always attributed to political positions, mayors, regional government, or national government delegates in regions. Also, the national police and the Guardia Civil (Civil Guards) often have authority over emergency services in major incidents.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article.

Photos found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Contando Estrelas.


George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters‘ Association (ASELF).


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