MOSCOW — A morning commute ended in darkness, smoke and mayhem for passengers on the Moscow metro Tuesday, when a train derailed underground, killing at least 20 people and injuring more than 100 others.
Witnesses described being suddenly heaved out of their seats and landing in piles in the center of the cars, as three derailed and jackknifed in a tunnel about 200 yards from the Slavyansky Boulevard metro stop.
All the fatalities were in the lead car of the train, a deputy mayor told reporters. Television footage showed it crumpled as other wagons pushed into it from behind. Passengers posted cellphone images of people walking through a tunnel to safety.
The cause was not immediately clear. Authorities blamed a power failure, a botched emergency stop or a mechanical flaw with a wheel chassis. Vladimir Markin, an Investigative Committee spokesman, ruled out terrorism.
“I was flung into the center of the wagon,” one passenger told the television station LifeNews. “A panic ensued,” the unidentified passenger said. “The train literally was torn apart, the wagons crumpled and a lot of people were injured, and some wound up squeezed” between bent metal debris.
Lenta.ru, a news website, quoted another unidentified passenger describing a “sudden braking, the lights went out, sparks, and heavy smoke. Everybody was thrown to one side.”
Firefighters reached the wreck within six minutes, the website reported. But so mangled was the wreckage that 12 hours later, two bodies remained stuck in the crumpled train car, Rossiya 24 television reported.
The television station, citing health officials, said 21 people had died. The Investigative Committee put the toll at 20. One citizen of China and one citizen of Tajikistan were among those killed, Russian news agencies quoted city officials as saying. Of the 136 people hospitalized, at least 42 were in grave condition, health officials said.
More than 1,100 people were evacuated from the train, which was stuck between two stations, in a rescue operation that ended more than 12 hours after the accident. One woman taken from the scene died at a Moscow hospital.
Dozens of injured people were carried out of the station on stretchers. Paramedics carried one woman covered with a blanket to the lawn by the Triumphal Arch, which commemorates Russia’s victory over Napoleon, and put her on a helicopter ambulance.
Several survivors sat on the sidewalk near the station’s entrance in an apparent state of shock, drinking water supplied by authorities on a hot summer day.
Moscow has had reason to prepare for subway emergencies. In 2010, twin suicide bombings carried out by female terrorists from the Dagestan region killed 39 people during morning rush hour. The accident Tuesday was the worst loss of life in the city’s metro system since that attack.
The news media in the capital provided saturation coverage of the accident, elbowing out news of the Ukraine conflict that has fixated the Moscow media for months.
The Echo of Moscow radio station interviewed a train conductor debunking the theory that a loss of electrical power could have caused a derailing. He said an electrical commuter train would coast to a safe stop in that case.
The news agency Interfax cited an unidentified official who was described as being close to the investigation saying a wheel assembly had come loose from the undercarriage of the lead car.
The derailing closed one of the heaviest-traveled lines of the Moscow metro, the Arbat-Pokrovsky line, which bisects the center of the city and carries on average 733,000 people a day. On weekdays, about 9 million people ride the Moscow metro daily. The Moscow Metro system, opened in 1935, is among the largest in the world.It is world-famous for its palatial interiors with mosaics, Socialist realist art, chandeliers and marble benches.
Park Pobedy, where the derailment occurred, is Moscow’s deepest metro station —275 feet)below the surface — which made the rescue particularly difficult. The station serves the vast park where Russia’s World War II museum is located.
In video released by the Emergency Situations Ministry, several wrecked train cars looked almost coiled, occupying the entire width of the tunnel. Workers were trying to force open the mangled doors of one car to retrieve bodies. Photos posted on social media sites showed passengers walking along the tracks in the dimly lit tunnel.
Russian officials rushed to open an investigation into the accident. President Vladimir Putin, who is traveling in Brazil, demanded a detailed investigation into the “reasons for the event” and asked the country’s top investigators to open a criminal case, his spokesman told Russian news agencies. He offered condolences to families of the dead, as did Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin also told reporters that unnamed officials will not only be fired, but also charged with crimes, though he would not say what charges they might face.
Associated Press contributed.