ZIBO, China - Some passengers were sleeping while others were standing in the aisle waiting to get off when their high-speed train derailed, slammed into another train and toppled into a ditch "like a roller-coaster." At least 70 people died and more than 400 were injured.
China reacted swiftly to its worst train accident in a decade, sacking two railway officials and sending top officials and soldiers to Zibo, the site of Monday's pre-dawn crash in eastern China's Shandong province.
Authorities were quoted as saying that human error was to blame. The official Xinhua news agency also said one of the trains was travelling too fast.
The crash occurred when a train headed from Beijing to the coastal city of Qingdao - site of the sailing competition during the Summer Olympics in August - derailed and hit a second passenger train just before dawn.
Nine of the first train's carriages were knocked into a dirt ditch, Railway Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said in a statement.
The second train, which had been headed from Yantai in Shandong to Xuzhou in eastern Jiangsu province, was knocked off its tracks but stayed upright.
News photos showed rescuers pulling passengers from a rail car knocked on its side. Survivors bundled in white bed sheets from the sleeper cars stood or sat near the wreckage.
The death toll could rise, with 70 people hospitalized in critical condition, according to Xinhua.
Security was tight on the outskirts of Zibo with roads to the crash site sealed by police and other nearby roads lined with paramilitary and police vehicles.
A total of 420 people were hurt, Xinhua said. No foreigners were among the dead. Injured survivors included four French nationals, a coach from China's national sailing team and a three-year-old boy.
Some 1,000 soldiers and armed police were sent to the crash site to seal it off and help with the rescue work, Xinhua said.
Heavy cranes were used to move the wrecked rail cars as workers seemed in a rush to get the line functioning again ahead of the May Day holiday weekend, when many Chinese flock to resort cities like Qingdao.
Trains are the most popular way to travel in China, and the country's overloaded rail network carried 1.36 billion passengers last year. While accidents are rare, the government is trying to extend and upgrade the state-run rail network and introduce more high-speed trains.
"Most passengers were still asleep, but some were standing in the aisle waiting to get off at the Zibo railway station," one passenger surnamed Zhang told Xinhua.
"I suddenly felt the train, like a roller-coaster, topple ... to one side and all the way to the other side. When it finally went off the tracks, many people fell on me," Zhang said.
Zhang, who was on the train from Beijing, was injured when the train fell into farmland beside the track. She said villagers used farm tools to smash windows to pull out trapped passengers.
"I saw a girl who was trying to help her boyfriend out of the train, but he was dead," Zhang said.
Shandong is one of China's richest provinces with a population of around 93 million, a large manufacturing base and a thriving port at Qingdao.
A coach of China's sailing team, Hu Weidong, was seriously injured, Dr. Zhang Jun, head of the orthopedics department at the Zibo Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, was quoted as saying.
The doctor said a three-year-old boy, Liu Jinhang, was probably the youngest person injured. He was in stable condition after being treated for a broken arm.
A 38-year-old woman told Xinhua that she and her daughter, 13, escaped unhurt by scrambling through a huge crack in the floor of their carriage.
Xinhua said investigators had ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash. Its English report said it was human error, while its Chinese-language report attributed the crash to negligence.
Xinhua cited investigators as saying the Beijing train was travelling at 132 kilometres an hour at the time of the crash, well over the speed limit of 80 km/h.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao issued directives urging an all-out rescue effort, Xinhua said, and Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang and Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun were immediately sent to oversee the rescue operation.
Both the director of the Railway Bureau in Jinan, the provincial capital and nearest big city, and the bureau's Communist party secretary, were fired after the crash, Xinhua said. They now face an investigation by the Ministry of Railways.
It was the second major railway accident in Shandong this year. In January, 18 people died when a train hurtling through the night at more than 120 km/h slammed into a group of about 100 workers doing track maintenance near the city of Anqiu.
According to the 163.com news website, Monday's was the worst train accident in China since 1997, when a collision killed 126 people.