‘I am not to blame’: Train crash conductor

A conductor said on Friday he was not to blame for a Spanish train derailment that killed 79 people on July 24th despite telephoning the driver just before the disaster.

'I am not to blame': Train crash conductor
The conductor of the train involved in the accident which saw at least 79 die is appearing only as a witness and is not accused of wrongdoing. Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP

The on-board conductor said his call to the driver had already ended when the speeding train flew off the rails and hurtled into a concrete wall near the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela.

"I have not felt I was to blame at any time," the conductor told reporters as he arrived at the court in Santiago de Compostela, which is running a criminal investigation into the accident.

The conductor is appearing only as a witness and is not accused of wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, he said he felt shaken after Spain's deadliest railway crash in decades.

"I am pretty well physically and injured psychologically," he told media.

The court, presided over by Judge Luis Alaez, has not released the conductor's name but he has been widely identified in the media as Antonio Martin Marugan.

On Thursday, the judge said the conductor, who had called the driver to discuss which track to use on a later stop, was not being accused of criminal negligence.

"The fact of consulting the driver to know if the train could run on a particular track was something normal," the judge said. "It was not the cause of the derailment."

"Even if it was unfortunate that the call took place at that place and time, it is not sufficient to make an accusation of criminal negligence."

The train driver, 52-year-old Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, has been released on bail charged with 79 counts of reckless homicide while the court investigates.

With 79 people killed and more than 100 injured, it was Spain's worst rail disaster since 1944.

Garzon had said in his first testimony to the Galicia regional court on Sunday that he "didn't understand" how he failed to brake in time, a recording of his court hearing revealed.

"I can't explain. I still don't understand," the driver told the judge when asked why he hadn't slowed down in time to take a sharp bend four kilometres (three miles) away from Santiago de Compostela.

Asked again about what caused him to crash, he added: "I tell you sincerely that I don't know. Otherwise I would not have been so crazy as not to brake" earlier.

Railway officials say the track where the train crashed was not equipped with the automatic braking systems in place on some high-speed lines and that it was therefore left up to the driver to brake.

The driver told the judge he had braked, but by the time he did so the crash was "inevitable".

"Before the train turned over, I had activated everything but I saw that no, no, it wasn't working."

The black box data recorders revealed the train was going at 192 kilometres (119 miles) per hour before braking shortly before the bend. When it derailed it was travelling at 153 kph — nearly twice the 80 kph speed limit on that part of the line.

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Spanish farmer jailed for 23 years for murder of American pilgrim

Miguel Angel Muñoz Blas, 41, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for the murder of Denise Pikka Thiem from the United States whom he lured off the Camino de Santiago and beat her to death.

Spanish farmer jailed for 23 years for murder of American pilgrim
Muñoz arriving for court in León. Photo: AFP

The provincial court in León handed down the sentence a week after a judy found him guilty of the murder of the 40 year-old pilgrim whose body was discovered on his land five months after she disappeared while walking the Camino de Santiago.

Denise Pikka Thiem, from Arizona, was last seen on  April 5th 2015 in a rural area of northwestern Spain's Leon province while following the French route of the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage also called the St. James Way.

Five months later, after a renewed appeal for information backed by US Senator John McCain, Spanish police arrested Muñoz and he led them to where he had hidden her body, after chopping off her hands, on his land.

Photo released by the family of Denise Pikka Thiem after she went missing.

Throughout the trial, Muñoz, who had originally given a full confession to police, had refused to answer questions.

“I will not make a statement. I won't answer any questions from prosecutors or my lawyer either,” he said.

At the time of his arrest the accused claimed that Thiem appeared on his property “lost and asking for help to find her way back to the pilgrimage route,” said his lawyer, Vicente Prieto at the time.

“He claims she asked him to show her the way, then got nervous and somehow, and this has not been made clear, it ended with him hitting her,” his lawyer said.

Police said that they believe the perpetrator may have painted fake yellow arrows used to mark the pilgrimage route to divert unsuspecting pilgrims off the official track towards his house.

Prieto told the La Manaña programme that his client had hit his victim with a stick and when she fell to the ground was hit on the head with a stone.

“After determining that she had stopped breathing he then buried her in front of his house,” said Prieto.

But Muñoz later dug her up and carried her to a more secluded area of farmland and reburied her. “She was naked, I am not sure why,” said the lawyer. “He burned her clothes and her backpack.” 

Police investigators at the time said they believed the killer may have removed her hands in an attempt to hinder her identification and possible forensic traces of her attacker that may have been under her fingernails after the struggle.

Muñoz in court in León. Photo: AFP

DNA tests confirmed that the remains were those of Thiem and the post mortem report stated that Thiem had received a blow to the head that had most probably caused her death.

Muñoz was also accused of stealing more than €1,000 dollars that Thiem was carrying and that he exchanged for euros at a local bank days after she disappeared.

During the three week trial in which more than 100 witnesses were called, the jury of eight women and one man heard testimony that several other women had been harassed by the accused as they walked the same route.

Muñoz was sentenced to 20 years for murder and three years for violent robbery for the theft of more than 1,000 dollars that Thiem was carrying and that he exchanged for euros at a local bank days after she disappeared.

He was also ordered to pay €120,000 compensation to the victim’s parents and a further €30,000 to her brother.