Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Terror on a train.

Those who lived through the Madrid train bombings share their stories of survival-and look back in sadness and disbelief at the carnage

People  March 29, 2004


The 10 bombs that detonated within 16 minutes of each other on four Madrid commuter trains on March 11 left at least 201 people dead, more than 1,500 injured and images of suffering almost beyond description. By tracing a cell phone found in one unexploded knapsack bomb, Spanish authorities were quickly able to arrest five men in connection with the slaughter, including three Moroccans, at least one of whom allegedly had ties to a member of Al Qaeda.

Within days a video surfaced showing another purported Al Qaeda operative claiming responsibility, leading investigators to focus even more attention on possible links between the bombers and Osama bin Laden's terror network. Regardless of who was behind the attack, the horror will not soon be forgotten by those lived through it.

Mónica Márquez Rodriguez, 17, is a student at the Colegio Virgen de Atocha in Madrid.

I had been up really late studying for a test, and when I woke up Thursday, I thought I was going to be late for school. But when I got to the train station, I saw that the train I take every day was still there. Because I was late the train was really crowded and somebody was sitting in my favorite seat, so I sat toward the front, next to a window. I took out my science book and started studying.v David Lopez Garcia, 25, a house painter, was aboard a train just ahead, which pulled into Atocha Station, Madrid's main rail terminal, at about 7:39 a.m. We had just arrived at the station, and I was hurrying along the platform when all of a sudden I was thrown to the ground. It was like a wave rolling over you. A train car that I had just passed had been blown apart. There was smoke everywhere, and everybody was running. As I got to the end of the platform, there was a second explosion. Minutes later the train carrying Rodriquez was approaching the station: I was lying back with my eyes closed thinking about school when the window next to me exploded and sprayed glass all over me. The car filled with smoke and people were climbing over me, trying to get out the window. It was far to the ground and I was scared, but I jumped anyway. Outside people were all around me, running, stumbling, lots of them were bleeding from cuts in their heads and blood running out of their noses and eyes. Ramón Luengas, 38, a telecommunications consultant, was on that same train.

People had already thrown themselves out of the window, but they landed headfirst and were injured. As I hit the ground, I noticed people strewn on the tracks. Many of them had the clothes blown off their bodies. They were completely naked.

Rodriguez: I saw a guy lying on the ground with his knee up in the air. At first I didn't think I was seeing it correctly, but then I realized that from the knee down there was nothing. I heard a girl moaning, "Help me." There was a big metal beam on top of her.

Two other girls and a man and I got her out from under the beam. By then she wasn't conscious and I took her pulse. As I was doing that, her heart stopped. I had seen her all year on the train, but we had never talked before.

I took the dead girl's scarf and ran over to the man who had lost part of his leg. People were trying to comfort him, but he was bleeding out of his knee. My dad is a medic, so I knew somebody had to stop the bleeding. I took the scarf and tried to tie it around his leg to make a tourniquet. Later I saw him being taken to an ambulance. Nine miles back up the line, a bomb went off in another train stopped by the platform at the Santa Eugenia station. Zinnia Rodriguez, a 20-year-old psychology student at Madrid's Autónoma University, was aboard.

The train was broken almost in half, and the inside was all black. Nobody understood what had happened. People were trying to use their cell phones, but the network was jammed. I finally reached my mother and I told her, "Don't worry if you hear about a train crash on TV, I am okay." Then she told me it was a terrorist attack, and I started to cry.

Five minutes later, a few miles closer to the city, two bombs ripped through a packed doubledecker train leaving the El Pozo station, where Miguel Barrios, 45, a maintenance man at a hotel in Madrid, had gotten on for the short ride to work.

The bomb going off made a dry, metallic sound. The scene was like something from Dante's Inferno, or the Spanish Civil War.

There were pieces of human flesh everywhere. People had literally been blown straight out of their seats and through the roof of the train. I saw bodies lying on the tracks that were split open.

One of the first rescuers on the scene at Atocha station was Dr. Ervigio Corral Torres, 43, the head of an ambulance service in Madrid.

Inside the train there were people who were still alive, but not strong enough to ask for help. They look into your eyes and you can see their eyes begging you. They have no legs. They have no arms. But you don't help them.

They're going to die. You can't save them and there are so many other people with a better chance of survival.

You can't spend too long with any one person-even one woman who was six months pregnant. I was opening up tracheas so people could breathe.

Others are in hypovolemic shock, so you have to give them an IV. You can't spend more than three or four minutes with any one person and you never finish-there is always more you can do. We could hear the dead people's mobiles phones. It was so shocking- these phones ringing that nobody was ever going to answer.

Mónica Márquez Rodriguez: It turned out the bomb was in my train car, right next to my favorite seat. I saw the man who had been sitting there. He was sticking out the window, moaning. I found out later he'd lost both legs. I think in that car only myself and another girl weren't really badly hurt.

Red Cross ambulance driver Antonio Bados, 32, worked through the night at the Ifema exhibition center, which was turned into a makeshift morgue.

We normally deal with blood and pain and tears, but never the tears of relatives. But here there were people crying for mothers, girlfriends, sons. The worst part of this was to see the relatives crying for hours.

The Colegio Público Ciudad de Valencia is an elementary school just a few minutes' walk from the Santa Eugenia train station. Concussions from the blasts shook the classrooms' windows and doors. In the school of 1,300 students, ages 3 to 12, seven parents were killed; one family, which includes a girl, 9, and a boy, 6, lost both the mother and father. In the days afterwards, teachers encouraged the students to draw pictures of the tragedy to help express how they felt. Salima Al-Jamil, 10, is a Moroccan student.

I don't know anything about why it happened. [The terrorists] don't win anything. They don't get any money. There are people dying, people suffering- that's all they get. I hope the terrorists will know how people feel after the attack.

Copyright by Samuel Loewenberg and/or the publication in which it first appeared
Do not reprint without permission, Courtney Rubin and Leela Aguadulce Landress in Madrid