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 120 others.
Witnesses described being suddenly heaved out of their seats and landing in piles in the centre 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. The authorities blamed a power failure, a botched emergency stop or a mechanical flaw with a wheel chassis. Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, ruled out terrorism.
“I was flung into the centre 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. The authorities said scores of the wounded were in grave condition.
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 that 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 that a wheel assembly had come loose from the undercarriage of the lead car.
President Vladimir V Putin, who was in Brazil for a summit meeting, ordered a criminal investigation and offered condolences to the families of the dead.