- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

NANCY, France A fire broke out on an overnight express train yesterday, filling a sleeper car with smoke and killing 12 passengers, officials said. Five Americans, all members of the same family, were among the dead, the U.S. Embassy said.

At least nine other passengers were injured, none seriously.

The train, carrying 150 passengers and bound from Paris to Vienna, Austria, was passing through the eastern French city of Nancy when the blaze started about three hours into the journey, the French rail authority SNCF said.

A train conductor alerted authorities to the fire at about 2:15 a.m. when he saw smoke pouring from a car as the train passed the Nancy station. Flames shot up into the air and thick black smoke billowed out of the car's windows.

An official with the sleeping car's owner, Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railroad, said the fire started in an attendant's cubicle in the sleeping car and spread from there. The attendant alerted the steward and they pulled the emergency brake to stop the train.

Local officials initially blamed the fire on an electrical short-circuit, but French rail officials later said the cause was still under investigation.

Among the dead were five Americans two women, a man, an 8-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl; three German men; a Russian man and woman; a Hungarian man and a Greek woman. Richard Lankford of the U.S. Embassy in Paris refused to release the American victims' names pending notification of their families.

"We believe that the people who regrettably died were asphyxiated in their sleep," Deutsche Bahn marketing chief Hans-Gustav Koch told German TV reporters.

Survivors described panic inside the train. Screaming passengers escaped the burning car by breaking windows and climbing out; those in other cars grabbed their things and ran out the doors.

Firefighters rushed to the train, which stopped about 875 yards outside the Nancy station. All the dead were inside the charred sleeping car, said regional official Jean-Francois Cordet.

"The catastrophe was amplified by the fact that it was in a confined space. The fire was limited, and the amount of smoke very quickly became catastrophic," chief firefighter Jean-Louis Modere said.

Authorities in Meurthe-et-Moselle prefecture said nine persons were injured: four Germans, three Britons, one American and one French national. All but one was treated at a hospital and released.

Deutsche Bahn said sleeping cars are generally not equipped with fire or smoke detectors, but do have fire extinguishers.

Fatal train accidents are extremely rare in France, whose high-speed rail network is considered one of the best in the world.

In September 1997, 12 persons were killed and 31 injured when a train in southwestern France burst into flames after crashing into a truck filled with gasoline.

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