BRUSSELS : A late-night passenger train slammed into the rear of a halted freight train in eastern Belgium, killing three people and injuring at least nine others, authorities said Monday.
Two cars from the train derailed and tumbled onto their side when it slammed into the freight train around 11 p.m. on Sunday at a speed of 55 mph (90 kph) on the banks of the Meuse river near Liege, RTL broadcasting said.
Nine people were hospitalized, some in critical condition, and the death toll could rise, said Francis Dejon, mayor of the commune of St. Georges-sur-Meuse.
Twenty-seven other passengers were examined and treated at the scene as a result of the accident.
“The passenger train is really in a lamentable state,” Dejon told a news conference. “We’ve very lucky there weren’t more victims.”
The first car, Dejon said, was so badly damaged “it was curled back on itself.”
It took rescuers up to three hours to free people from the wreckage of the train, which carried around 40 people when it crashed at Hermalle-sous-Huy while traveling between the city of Mouscron and the village of Liers.
Dejon said prosecutors were at the scene and investigating the cause of the accident.
“The SNCB will participate closely in the investigation,” Belgium’s national railway operator said in a statement. Its services have been seriously affected by a recent wave of strikes, especially in French-speaking parts of the country.
A spokesman for Infrabel, a separate company that oversees Belgium’s rail infrastructure, said installations in the area where the wreck occurred “were hit by lightning” earlier on Sunday.
“It’s an element we’re going to have to look at, but it’s premature to see this as the cause of the accident,” spokesman Frederic Sacre said. “Prosecutors are at the scene, so we’re not able to have access until their work is done.”
SNCB’s Twitter account on Sunday reported “a signals disruption” on the rail line about an hour and a half before the wreck occurred, but said the problem had been solved and normal train service restored.
The wreck halted rail service between Namur and Liege, two of Belgium’s largest cities. Nathalie Pierard, an SNCB spokeswoman, said it could take several days to clear the tracks.
Those injured were taken for treatment to Huy and Liege, and psychological counseling was arranged for those who wanted it.
Family members arriving at the accident scene to search for loved ones were being offered accommodation in a nearby abbey.