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Did Wheel Cause Rail Disaster?

Rail officials yanked dozens of Germany's fastest trains out of service Thursday while rescuers extricated more bodies and investigators pointed to a wheel failure as a possible cause of the country's deadliest rail accident in more than 50 years.

By Thursday night, 90 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage of the Hamburg-bound InterCity Express, which crashed and broke apart at 125 mph Wednesday morning in Eschede, a small town 35 miles north of Hanover.

At least 100 people died, Lower Saxony state officials said; some of the victims were still trapped beneath the ruins of a concrete overpass that came crashing down upon the train.

Another 200 people were injured, 95 of whom were treated in hospitals, state officials said.

"I remember only that people and seats were all over the place," an unidentified woman told NTV television in one of the first interviews with hospitalized passengers.

"A glass pane fell on me, and I was lying on top of somebody, and all around was chaos," the bandaged woman said softly from a hospital bed.

Deutsche Bahn took all 60 of its first-generation ICE trains, which are from 5 to 7 years old, out of service for inspections as they finished their runs Thursday, idling more than half of the nation's high-speed trains.

"We plan on trains being delayed, but we will ask people to understand as we feel this is necessary for their safety," rail spokesman Martin Katz said. "We are going to do everything possible to make sure that this tragic accident won't happen again."

Earlier, officials had lowered the speed limit for all ICE trains to 100 mph until the entire fleet could be inspected.

Authorities set up a reception center for worried relatives in a sports hall in Eschede. The window shades were drawn and a sign warning "No Press" was attached to plastic sheets covering the door.

Bodies and body parts were taken to Hanover for identification.

"The goal must be to identify the bodies as quickly as possible," Chancellor Helmut Kohl said after visiting the crash scene. He pledged $550,000 in government aid, matching donations of the same size from the state government and the railway.

Horst Stuchly, president of the federal railway office, said there was no indication of human error and that a break in a wheel was emerging as a possible cause. In an interview on ARD television, Stuchly added that part of the train derailed about 300 yards before the train reached the overpass.

The locomotive separated from the rest of the train at the overpass -- one of the events investigators are considering as a potential cause of the crash.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Transport Ministry said that a broken wheel on the first car behind the lead locomotive may have been a factor. She did not elaborate.

The weekly Rheinischer Merkur reported Thursday that federal rail experts found signs tht one of the coaches derailed fully 3 3/4 miles before the overpass. The section continued along the rail bed until a bend near the overpass, the newspaper said.

Officials said it appeared that the fifth car of the 12-car train hit the bridge. The back end of the car was broken off; the fourth car veered off the rails and rolled onto its side, while three other cars jackknifed farther up the line.

The lead locomotive remained on the tracks and the driver apparently was unaware of the disaster, coming to a stop only after the station master at Eschede activated an emergency brake.

Written by Tony Czuczka
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