CBSN

Train-Wreck Toll Expected To Climb

As rescue workers toiled through the night to free survivors from the wreckage of a high-speed passenger train that derailed in northern Germany, authorities were looking into the safety of trains that travel at speeds of 125 mph or more.

Hurtling with a momentum that piled train cars one atop another in twisted heaps of steel, Germany's fastest passenger train derailed and jack-knifed Wednesday after the lead locomotive broke loose. State officials said at least 100 people were killed, and the death toll could mount throughout the day.

CBS News correspondent Tom Fenton reports that rescue work is continuing with the slow and painstaking job of disentangling the railway cars from the remains of the bridge.

Workers are using jackhammers to break up the huge slabs of the bridge that have trapped what are believed to be first-class cars underneath the remains of the bridge. The rescue teams worked throughout the night, using cranes, blow torches, and jackhammers in the delicate job of disentangling the wreckage of the train and the remains of the bridge.

Survivors found among the tangle of metal included a 10-year-old girl pulled from the wreckage more than an hour after the crash. Survivors were taken to hospitals throughout the region. The Red Cross chartered six buses to take most of the uninjured to Hamburg, spokesman Harald Krueger said.

Estimates of the number of injured passengers ranged from 40 to more than 100. More than 1,100 rescue workers were at the scene, including trauma surgeons and border patrol personnel, who helped free passengers trapped inside the rail cars

Officials say there is very little chance of finding anyone else alive. Already, 70 bodies have been removed from the wreckage, officials said. Authorities are not certain how many passengers were on the train, and the number who died will not be known until the rescue workers uncover and cut open the remaining cars still trapped in the rubble.

That process could take all day and into the night again, because much of the bridge is still on the remains of the train.

Traveling at 125 mph, car after car slammed into an overpass, bringing it crashing down upon the wreckage. Dazed survivors staggered with bloodied hands toward residents who came running out of houses just 150 feet away, protected by an embankment.

The Munich-to-Hamburg train, carrying mostly business people, was nearing the Eschede station in northern Germany at the time of the mid-morning crash. Passengers felt a rattle, then, soon afterward, the jarring impact, one survivor said.

"I held on and ducked down because you had the feeling you'd be thrown through the air and then, thank God, it came to a standstill," Wolf-Ruediger Schliebener, a passenger from a rear car, told SAT 1 TV.

"Then I saw in the distance to the front where all the cars were chaotically laying all over."

The locomotive driver, oblivious to the catastrophe bhind him, kept driving through the small train station at Eschede, 35 miles north of Hanover.

The station master finally hit the emergency brakes, bringing the engine to a halt more than a mile from the overpass.

The train was prized for both its speed and safety, and the cause of its accident - Germany's worst since World War II - remained unclear. The intercity express trains were supposed to be not only the fastest but also the safest trains in Germany. An automobile seems to have been involved. Whether it was on the tracks, near the tracks, or fell from the bridge is a mystery.

Views of the wreckage offered no obvious clues to the accident. The nose of the rear engine stuck from under the bridge, and three derailed cars were piled on each other beneath the collapsed overpass.

All 12 cars and the rear engine either derailed or smashed into each other, and splintered glass covered the ground.

German authorities are expected to take a long, hard look at the safety of these trains, and the Japanese are sending representative to the crash scene e because they are worried about the safety of their own "bullet" trains, which travel even faster than the German high-speed trains.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, informed of the tragedy after arriving in Italy for meetings with Premier Romano Prodi, appeared shaken by the news and cut his visit short.

"So many dead... It's a tragedy," Kohl, his face tight, said in Bologna with Prodi at his side. "Excuse me, but I must return home right away."

The accident was the worst on Germany's premier high-speed Inter-City Express line, inaugurated in 1991. Carrying 65,000 passengers daily, they travel at speeds up to 175 mph, slightly slower than the Japanese bullet trains' top speed of 185 mph.

The fastest U.S. trains hit speeds of 125 mph as they run between New York and Washington, Amtrak said.