- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2012

SZCZECHOCINY, Poland — Two trains running on the same track collided head-on in southern Poland in a shower of sparks, killing 16 people and injuring 58 in the country’s worst train disaster in more than 20 years.

The crash near Krakow turned cars at the front of each train into heaps of mangled metal and toppled others on their sides.

Residents of the town of Szczechociny, startled by what they said sounded like a bomb, rushed to the scene to smash open windows, and survivors emerged in a state of shock, many crying out for help and carrying baggage.

Rescuers worked through the night to recover bodies and help the wounded.

One of the trains was on the wrong track. Maintenance work was being done on the tracks before the accident, but officials said it was 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 he could give no more information.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk earlier had said that several of the passengers were foreigners, including people from Ukraine, Spain and France, but none of them was among the dead or most-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. “It’s a very, very sad day and night in the history of Polish railways and for all of us.”

The trains could hold up to 350 people, but it was 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 in the Euro 2012 Championship, which is being co-hosted by Ukraine.

Poland, a country of 38 million still 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, but there is fairly speedy service between some key cities, and trains generally are seen as safe.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into how the train got on the wrong track.

One train was traveling from the eastern city of Przemysl to Warsaw in the north, while the other - on the wrong track - was heading south from Warsaw to Krakow.

The tragedy was Poland’s worst involving trains since 1990, when 16 people were killed in a collision involving two trains in the Warsaw suburb of Ursus. Since then, the most serious Polish rail accident was in 1997, when 12 people were killed in Reptowo.



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