A train carrying liquid petroleum gas derailed in an Italian seaside resort town sending a fireball that engulfed nearby houses, killed at least 16 people and injured dozens, officials said.
Witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as many of the injured in Viareggio were left with extensive burns. The driver told of his "miracle" escape after his cabin filled with the liquid gas.
The local health service gave the latest toll of 16 dead and 36 injured, of whom 14 were in critical condition. Two of the dead were children, officials said.
Hundreds of firefighters from across the region rushed to help with the rescue operation and ensure remaining tankers did not catch fire.
More than 1,000 people were evacuated because of the danger of more explosions, said Luca Lunardini, mayor of the city of 50,000 people, adding before the latest toll was issued that five people were still missing.
Authorities declared a state of emergency and Transport Minister Altero Matteoli set up an official inquiry.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram expressing his "deep compassion for the pain which has touched the whole town", while Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Viareggio to "take control of the situation".
One of the drivers told of his scramble to escape the inferno just before midnight on Monday. "The drivers' cabin filled with the gas, we managed to escape. We are alive, it is a miracle."
Guido Bertolaso, the chief of the civil protection services, said: "There are several bodies in the streets thrown out of the buildings by the explosion," and added that many corpses were charred beyond recognition.
Another witness told of finding a burnt body in the street.
"I heard the explosion and I went out into the street to find myself faced with flames and a motionless charred body lying on the ground," the witness, who works at a nearby pharmaceutical company, told Italian news agency ANSA.
He called it a "terrifying scene that I will never forget".
A young girl caught in the blast on her scooter threw herself to the ground to put out her burning clothes, ANSA quoted another witness as saying.
One wagon in the 14-carriage train transporting liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) came off the rails in the town, which is just northwest of Pisa.
|Two rail tankers filled with gas exploded in a fireball after a train derailed in the Italian seaside resort of Viareggio on Monday night, engulfing nearby homes and killing at least 16 people|
"The cars flipped over on their sides on the rails and the gas spread out among the nearest houses before exploding," said senior firefighter Antonio Gambardella.
Small homes along the railway line were caught in the blast. Two small residential buildings were completely engulfed in flames and destroyed. Around 18 people were believed to live in one of the buildings.
Some were known to have survived, Gambardella told AFP, "but we fear there could be several more people under the rubble".
He said an eight-year-old boy had been pulled out alive in the early hours. Another two children were among the wounded, said the local prefect.
Investigators were looking into the possibility that the train derailed because the axle on one of the wagons broke, derailing the container and its volatile cargo, said ANSA.
The locomotive and five wagons led on the rails at the crash site. The locomotive and first wagon were blackened by flames and detached from the rest of the convoy and wagon wheels were some 30 metres away.
The train, which started from the port of La Spezia, was going to Pisa.
Giuseppe Intorre, who was station master in Viareggio until 1992, said the tragedy could have been possibly averted if there were more personnel at the station.
"Earlier, there were more checks, more staff in the station and when something occurred, we could alert them," the retiree said.
Monday's accident was the most serious in Italy since a cargo train and a passenger service collided on January 7, 2005, killing 17 people and injuring another 60 near the northern city of Bologna.
Liquefied petroleum gas is a mixture of propane and butane that is used for cooking or as fuel for specially adapted cars.