A train derailment that killed at least six people near Paris may have been caused by a loose steel plate at a junction, the French train operator said, as emergency workers continued their search for victims.
Eight people were injured seriously and dozens of others suffered lighter wounds, including British passengers on the packed service bound for Limoges from Paris.
Pierre Izard, head of infrastructure services at SNCF, said the piece which was bolted on to the track had moved to “the middle of the track junction,” preventing the rolling stock from passing through.
“The reasons why this fishplate dislocated itself is the very focus of the investigations,” said SNCF head Guillaume Pepy.
He added that the train operator would immediately start checking some 5,000 similar junctions throughout the French rail network, which was once seen as a source of national pride but has been in decline.
The accident marred festivities for France’s July 14 Bastille Day, traditionally the cue for French families to embark on long summer holidays.
A crane was due to arrive at the scene to lift a mangled carriage which flipped over when the train carrying 385 passengers hit a platform at Bretigny-sur-Orge on the outskirsts of Paris.
“The fear is that victims may still be trapped in the wreckage,” said an SNCF manager at the scene. “The recovery operation will be carrying on all day.”
A police spokesman described groups of local people “picking through the wreckage” on Friday night and looting from the bodies of victims, who were electrocuted or crushed to death.
“It appeared at first that they were trying to help, but it soon became clear that they were taking personal property away. When police approached they threw stones before running away,” said the spokesman.
The crash site, some 16 miles from the centre of Paris, is surrounded by waste land.
Six carriages derailed in all, with the third and fourth leaving the rail first, at around 5.14pm.
One mounted the station platform, a preliminary enquiry carried out by SNCF, the judiciary and the BEA safety agency.
Frederic Cuvillier, French transport minister, ruled out “human error”, instead praising the train driver for averting an even more serious accident.
Mr Cuvillier said: “Fortunately, the driver of the locomotive had absolutely extraordinary reflexes in that he sounded the alarm immediately, preventing a collision with another train coming in the opposite direction and which would have hit the derailing carriages within seconds. So it was not a human problem.”
He said investigators would be concentrating on the rolling stock, the infrastructure, and, in particular, the points.
British student Marvin Khareem Wone was on another train when the 16.53 from Paris-Austerlitz ploughed into the station.
He told the BBC: “The train went off the railway – it just went on the platform and kind of flew in the air for a second and went upside down.
“The first and the second coach were completely destroyed. I really thought no-one could survive that because it was completely mashed up. Everyone was crying and running everywhere. A woman was crying for her daughter who was still on the train.’
Vianey Kalisa, who was also at the station, said: “I saw many wounded women children trapped inside. People were screaming. A man had blood on his face. These are images of war”.