- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2012

SZCZECHOCINY, Poland (AP) — Two trains running on the same track collided head-on in southern Poland late Saturday, leaving 16 people dead and 58 injured in the country’s worst train disaster in more than 20 years.

The powerful collision near the town of Szczekociny, just north of Krakow, occurred after one of the trains ended up on the wrong track. The impact left several hulks of mangled metal smashed on the tracks, with cars overturned and on their sides, and rescuers worked through the night to recover bodies and help the wounded.

Maintenance work was being done on the tracks in the area, but officials say it’s too early to determine the cause of the disaster.

The U.S. Consulate in Krakow said an American woman was among the dead and her family had been informed. Spokesman Benjamin Ousley said that he could give no more information and that Polish authorities would release further details late Saturday.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk earlier said several of the passengers were foreigners, including people from Ukraine, Spain and France, but none of them was among the dead or mostly seriously injured.

President Bronislaw Komorowski visited the site Sunday, saying that when rescue efforts are over, he would make an announcement about a period of national mourning.

“This is our most tragic train disaster in many, many years,” Mr. Tusk said.

An unnamed passenger interviewed on the all-news station TVN24 said he felt the force of the collision.

“I hit the person in front of me. The lights went out. Everything flew,” he said. “We flew over the compartment like bags. We could hear screams. We prayed.”

Rescuers brought in heavy equipment to free a body from the wreckage and ended up finding two, a spokesman for firefighters, Radoslaw Lendor, told TVN24.

A physician in one of the hospitals, Dr. Szymon Nowak, said many of the injured were in a serious condition, with some in artificially induced comas.

“It’s a very, very sad day and night in the history of Polish railways and for all of us,” Mr. Tusk said.

The trains could hold up to 350 people, but it’s not clear how many were on board.

The accident comes three months before millions of soccer fans will start crisscrossing the country — many by train — to watch matches at the Euro 2012 championships, which is being co-hosted by Ukraine.

Poland, which still is recovering economically from decades of communist rule, doesn’t yet have the high-speed trains of Western Europe — many of the local trains are old and slow. However, the country does offer fairly speedy service between some key cities, and trains are generally seen as safe and used by many in the country of 38 million.

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