A high-speed passenger train jumped the track in the eastern province of Shandong early on Monday, striking another train and leaving 70 dead and 416 injured, railway authorities confirmed.
Preliminary investigations suggested the accident was caused by human error. Authorities have ruled out the possibility of terrorism.
The casualties were from both trains, one of which was en route from Beijing to Qingdao, a famous summer resort in Shandong and venue of the Olympic sailing competition. The other was traveling from Yantai, Shandong to Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province.
The high-speed train from Beijing, coded T195, derailed in the city of Zibo at about 4:40 a.m. and smashed into train 5034. The second train also left the tracks. At least 12 cars from both trains derailed.
No foreign citizens were killed in the accident, which occurred just before the May Day national holiday passenger rush. However, four French nationals were hospitalized with bone fractures. They were identified as 54-year-old Pascal Boisson, his 14-year-old son Pierre Emmanuel Boisson, 22-year-old daughter Joanne Boisson, and his girlfriend Robin Naurence, 42.
Joanne Boisson, who sustained minor back injuries, politely declined Xinhua's request for an interview. "I'm not feeling well. I'm on my way to see my younger brother at a separate hospital," she said over the phone.
Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, who was overseeing rescue work at the site, visited Zibo Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital where Joanne and her father were being treated on Monday afternoon.
The hospital had received 21 injured passengers so far and more were expected, said Zhang Jun, head of the orthopedics department.
The youngest patient was a 3-and-a-half-year-old boy, Liu Jinhang, from Qingdao.
The accident occurred in Hejiacun village, about 500 meters east of the Wangcun Railway Station in Zhoucun District in the suburbs of Zibo, about 70 kilometers east of the provincial capital, Jinan.
One passenger, surnamed Zhang, said the train from Beijing was like a "roller coaster".
"It toppled 90 degrees to one side and then all the way to the other side. When it finally went off the tracks, many people fell on me and hot water poured out of their thermos flasks," said Zhang.
When Zhang escaped from the wrecked train, she saw many villagers had voluntarily joined the rescue work, some smashing train windows with farm tools to free trapped passengers. Others brought food and water from home.
"I saw a girl trying to help her boyfriend out of the train -- only to find he was dead," Zhang said.
Zhang and other survivors also joined the rescue work, using blankets and sheets from the sleeper cars as stretchers to carry out the seriously injured.
"For a time, so many people were trying to make phone calls that the mobile communications network was congested and no one could get through," said a fourth-year college student surnamed Xu, who was traveling from Beijing to Qingdao to visit her boyfriend. She was not injured in the accident.
Wang Xiaoyu, 23, from the northeastern Heilongjiang Province and his girlfriend were also among the lucky passengers on board T195. They were on the seventh carriage, far enough from the 10th to 18th carriages that derailed.
"We were still asleep but felt the train jump twice. Then the whole carriage had a power failure," said Wang. "Within 20 minutes, a stewardess came and told us to join the rescue work."
Wang and several other young men walked about 500 m to the derailed cars. "I pulled seven or eight people out of the wrecked train -- some of them were already dead."
Wang and more than 30 other survivors took a bus to Qingdao at 4:30 pm.
Xu Dongtan, a physician with Zibo Central Hospital, said he arrived at the site at 6 a.m. "I examined at least 110 patients to decide which hospital they were to go to. Most people suffered bruises and fractures," he said.
Patients were sent to 19 hospitals in or near Zibo. The city government has sent a 1,500-member team to help and console victims' families. Nine hotels and 34 rescue centers have been reserved for the victims' families.
A preliminary investigation by railway and work safety authorities suggested the accident, the worst since 1997, was caused by human error.
Authorities have ruled out the possibility of terrorism.
Although investigations are continuing, some investigators said that T195 was traveling at 131 kilometers per hour before the accident, far in excess of the speed limit of 80 km/hr between Zhoucun and Wangcun.
Immediately after the accident, two top officials of the Jinan Railway Bureau were sacked. The bureau's former director Chen Gong and former Communist Party chief Chai Tiemin face an investigation by the Ministry of Railways.
The ministry has appointed Geng Zhixiu, deputy engineer-in-chief of the ministry as the new director, and Xu Chang'an, deputy chair of the ministry's trade union, as the new Party chief.
A ministry spokesman has offered condolences to the victims.
"We grieve over the loss of life and sincerely hope those who were injured in the accident will recover soon," said Wang Yongping.
The accident caught the attention of top Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun and head of the State Administration of Work Safety Wang Jun are at the site to oversee the rescue work.
The crash disrupted two-way traffic on the century-old Jinan-Qingdao Railway, a 384-km trunk line between the two big cities in Shandong.
The railway was originally built by the Germans in Qingdao in 1901 and opened to traffic in 1904.
Thousands of passengers were stranded at stations in Shandong on Monday and authorities arranged buses to divert the crowds.
Cranes and forklifts were sent in at midday to remove the wrecked cars and damaged cross-ties from the rails. By 5 p.m., more than 1,000 workers were still repairing the line. Electricians installed more lighting for night repair work.
The Ministry of Railways said it expected to restore service at about 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
Monday's crash was the second major rail accident in Shandong this year.
In January, a high-speed train from Beijing to Qingdao ran down a group of railway workers, leaving 18 dead and nine others injured. The workers were relocating the tracks when the train struck the work site in Anqiu.
China had raised train speeds six times as of April 2007, with railways allowing a speed of more than 200 km per hour totaling 6,227 km. By 2020, the length of such high-speed railways is forecast to reach 18,000 km and high-speed services will cover 50,000 km, serving 90 percent of China's population.
Work has started on several new high-speed rail lines, including the Beijing-Tianjin railway and the Beijing-Shanghai railway. The latter, with a designed speed of 350 km/hr, broke ground in mid-April.