Friends defend ‘excellent professional’ crash driver

Former colleagues and locals of crash driver Francisco Jose Garzon Amo have said he was 'responsible' and 'competent' in the past.

Friends defend 'excellent professional' crash driver
Luggage of travellers of the derailed train that killed 78 people in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP

Some paint him as a reckless man who boasted about driving his Spanish trains at massive speed, before crashing one, leaving 78 people dead and 178 injured.

Francisco Jose Garzon Amo's friends and neighbours tell a different story.

The grey-haired driver has not appeared in public since he was helped to stagger, with blood pouring down his face, away from the wreck near the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday night.

But, detained by the police, he has become the focus of speculation as a nation in mourning seeks to explain what caused its worst train disaster in nearly 70 years.

"He is an excellent professional. It is the first accident he has ever had," said Antonio Rodriguez, who joined the state rail company Renfe alongside Garzon in 1982.

The two started out as young auxiliary workers refuelling the trains in Monforte de Lemos, a small town in a green valley an hour and half's drive from Santiago.

Rodriguez is now the Galicia region railway workers' leader of the UGT, Spain's biggest labour union, and one of the relatively few individuals to defend Garzon publicly as authorities investigate.

"He has never been sanctioned in all the time he has worked since 1982," Rodriguez told AFP by telephone, his voice weary after days trying to contact his friend.

Media have widely cited a post the driver reportedly made on his Facebook page — since taken offline — with a photograph of a speed dial in a train showing 200 kilometres an hour (124 miles per hour).

Along with comments he reportedly made by radio immediately before the crash, the Facebook post has painted a compromising picture of Garzon.

El Pais newspaper cited sources in the investigation saying he told controllers that the train was going at 190 kilometres per hour. The curving stretch of track where it hurtled off the rails had a speed limit of 80 kph.

Newspapers have also quoted him as telling a control centre immediately after the accident: "I hope no one died because it will weigh on my conscience."

Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said Saturday that Garzon was suspected of "reckless homicide".

Police said the driver refused to answer their questions in hospital and that it was now for the judges to decide whether to bring charges.

Garzon was discharged from hospital on Saturday and taken to a police station. He was due to appear before a judge on Sunday who will decide whether
to press formal charges, the interior minister said.

The head of the state firm ADIF which runs Spain's railway infrastructure, Gonzalo Ferre, has cast the blame directly on Garzon, saying he should have braked well before the bend outside Santiago.

That part of the track was not equipped, as many high-speed lines are, with the latest braking technology that would slow the train down automatically if the driver failed to so when required.

In the train station of Montforte de Lemos, workers shook their heads,grim-faced, when asked about Garzon. "All we can say about him are good things," said one person who knew the driver.

"It is a shame the things some people have said. But we cannot say anything," for fear of being misrepresented, he told AFP.

Garzon became a fully qualified driver in 2003. In the process, he left Montforte and worked out of several other cities before moving back to Galicia in 2011, to A Coruna, to look after his ageing mother, Rodriguez said.

Locals defended Garzon against unfavourable media speculation.

"People here are keeping quiet about it because it is a very delicate topic. But since he was born here, we are his defenders," said Jesus Asper, 54, sitting in the waiting room at Monforte station.

"Before becoming a train driver, he was an auxiliary labourer here. People say he was very responsible and very competent," he said, as he sat exchanging
theories about the crash with his friend Luis, 80.

"People want a spectacle. When something like this happens, they want someone to feed on."

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Which Spanish regions are likely to allow people to remove their masks outdoors?

As Spain's vaccine campaign gains speed and the infection rate drops, there are indications that facemasks will very soon no longer be compulsory outdoors in several Spanish regions.

Which Spanish regions are likely to allow people to remove masks outdoors?

Spain’s Health Emergencies chief Fernando Simón said at a recent press conference that he is hopeful about relaxing the rule about the use of masks in outdoor spaces, as long as the safety distance of 1.5 meters can be guaranteed.

“It is very possible that in a few days the use of a mask outdoors can be reduced. Of course, always guaranteeing that the risks are decreasing,” he said.

However, Simón also added that “reducing one measure does not mean that the same should be done with all measures”. In addition, he asked citizens to go “step by step and be careful until we see the effects that mean we can relax the restrictions”.

Although this will be decided in the next few days Simón does not want anyone to “fall into false assurances”.

Face masks have been compulsory in public in Spain since May 21st 2020, and since March of this year, you are required to wear them in almost all indoor and outdoor settings, even if you’re sticking to the safety distance, unless the activity is incompatible with mask-wearing such as eating, drinking, sunbathing, running etc. 

Regions that could possibly relax restrictions on the use of masks outdoors

If the mask restrictions are relaxed by the government and the health authorities, the regions that could already qualify because of their low-to-medium risk epidemiological situations include Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y León, Castilla La-Mancha, Extremadura, the Valencian region, Murcia, the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands.

Which regions are in favour of the move?

Both Catalonia and Galicia have said that they would be in favour of dropping the use of masks outdoors.

The Catalan government was one of the first regions to open the discussion on relaxing the use of masks outdoors.

According to Catalan Regional Health Secretary MarcRamentol, the Catalan government considers that with at least 30 percent of the population fully vaccinated and more than half of the population having received at least one dose, the matter is worth discussing. 

Not having to wear a mask outdoors will help the summer “feel more like 2019 than that of 2020”, said Ramentol.

President of the Xunta of Galicia Alberto Núñez Feijoo, said last week that he expects the use of masks outdoors will be abolished in July, however on Tuesday, May 18th at the Hotusa Group Tourism Innovation Forum in Madrid, he insisted that it is only “a matter of weeks”.

Although Valencia currently still has some strict rules in place, Regional President Ximo Puig has stated that he is in favour of the mask not being compulsory in open spaces. “We know that in open spaces there is a much lower possibility of contagion and I have been supporting this for a long time – it is not necessary to use the mask in some open spaces, natural spaces or on the beaches,” he said.

Which regions want to keep making masks compulsory in outdoor spaces

Regional authorities in Madrid and the Basque Country, the regions which the highest infection rates in Spain have criticised the national government’s position regarding masks, arguing that’s it’s too soon for masks to no longer be obligatory outdoors.

Andalusia is also against the proposal. Jesús Aguirre, Minister of Health and Families in Adalusia, has said that it would be a mistake since the mask is “the most powerful weapon” with which we have to avoid possible infections within the region.