ZIBO, China — Some passengers were sleeping, but others were standing in the aisle waiting to get off when their high-speed train derailed, toppling into a ditch "like a roller coaster" and slamming into another train. At least 70 people died and more than 400 were injured.
China reacted swiftly to its worst train accident in a decade, sending top officials and soldiers to Zibo, the site of Monday's pre-dawn crash in eastern China's Shandong province, and sacking two railway officials.
Authorities were quoted as saying that human error was to blame. The Xinhua News Agency also said one of the trains was traveling too fast.
The crash occurred when a train headed from Beijing to the coastal city of Qingdao derailed and hit a second passenger train just before dawn. Nine of the first train's carriages were knocked into a ditch.
The death toll could rise, with 70 people hospitalized in critical condition. A total of 420 people were hurt.
Some 1,000 soldiers and armed police were sent to the crash site to seal it off and help with the rescue work. Heavy cranes were used to move the wrecked rail cars, and workers aimed to reopen the line. Officials seemed to be in a rush to get the line functioning again ahead of the May Day holiday weekend, when Chinese flock to resort cities like Qingdao.
Trains are the most popular way to travel in China, and the country's overloaded rail network carried 1.36-billion passengers last year. While accidents are rare, the government is trying to extend and upgrade the state-run rail network and introduce more high-speed trains.
The second train was knocked off its tracks but stayed upright.
"Most passengers were still asleep, but some were standing in the aisle waiting to get off," a passenger named Zhang told Xinhua. "I suddenly felt the train, like a roller coaster, topple … to one side and all the way to the other side. When it finally went off the tracks, many people fell on me."
Zhang was injured when the train fell into farmland beside the track. She said villagers used farm tools to smash train windows to pull out trapped passengers.
Shandong is one of China's richest provinces with a population of about 93-million, a large manufacturing business, and thriving port at Qingdao.
It was the second major railway accident in Shandong this year. In January, 18 people died when a train hurtling through the night at more than 75 mph slammed into a group of about 100 workers doing track maintenance near the city of Anqiu.
According to the 163.com news Web site, Monday's was the worst train accident in China since 1997, when a collision killed 126 people.