Freight Train Derails In Italy, Kills 12, Burns 50

VIAREGGIO, Italy (AP) -- A train derailed and set off an explosion and fire in the middle of a small Italian town, killing at least 12 people - many as they slept in their homes - and injuring at least 50, officials said Tuesday.

The 14-car train was traveling from the northern city of La Spezia to Pisa when a rear car plowed into a residential neighborhood beside the train station in the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio just before midnight Monday.

A train car filled with liquefied natural gas exploded, collapsing five buildings and setting fire to a vast area. Homes collapsed or burned, killing residents as they slept.

The exact death toll was unclear as hundreds of rescuers searched through the rubble for survivors.

Guido Bertolaso, the chief of the Civil Protection Department, told reporters at the scene that 12 people had been killed, the ANSA and Apcom news agencies said. He said four people were missing.

Gennaro Tornatore, a spokesman for the firefighters, said 15 people had died.

Many of the injured suffered severe burns.

"We saw a ball of fire rising up to the sky," said witness Gianfranco Bini, who lives in a building overlooking the station. "We heard three big rumbles, like bombs. It looked like war had broken out."

His son, Gianni Bini, said he saw a truck driver running away on fire.

"This truck was passing by ... when it was hit by the heat wave and I saw the driver ablaze, getting off and walking away," he said.

Videos uploaded on YouTube showed a huge plume of fire and smoke towering above Viareggio's low houses. An inferno raged through the night, consuming buildings and cars, while the sound of sirens and explosions pierced the air. TV images showed residents, their bodies blackened by the smoke, being carried away on stretchers.

Ten buildings were at least partially burned, as well as dozens of cars, firefighters said.

Officials said the death toll might change as 300 firefighters and other rescue teams searched through the rubble.

The city of Lucca's top government official, Prefect Carmelo Aronica, told Italy's RAI state TV that at least 50 people were injured, with 35 hospitalized with severe burns. The ANSA news agency reported that three children were pulled alive from the rubble of their collapsed home shortly before daybreak Tuesday.

About 1,000 people were evacuated from their homes as a precaution, said Viareggio Mayor Luca Lunardini. Tents were set up around the town hall for about 200 people.

As the firefighters worked to contain the blaze, teams specialized in dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical threats were being brought in to prevent the other gas tanks from exploding. Officials said the fire was contained after several hours, but a smell of burning hung in the air.

"There are dozens and dozens of cars hit by the shock wave and collapsed houses," said firefighters' spokesman Luca Cari.

Some of the victims, including a child, were killed in their homes, said Raffaele Gargiulo, a police spokesman for the nearby city of Lucca, which is in charge of the smaller town of Viareggio. Two drivers on the road alongside the tracks when the train derailed were also killed.

Others suffered severe burns and died at the hospital.

"The condition of the bodies is such that it will be very difficult to identify them," Gargiulo said.

The train's two engineers were only lightly injured. While being questioned in the hospital, they said they felt an impact some 650 feet (200 meters) outside the station, shortly before the rear of the train flew off the tracks, Gargiulo said.

He told The Associated Press by telephone that the derailing may have been caused by damage to the tracks or by a problem with the train's braking system.

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