Spanish train crash turns celebratory holidays into period of mourning

The deadly derailment cast a pall over July 25's Feast of St. James and National Galicia Day, festivals that intertwine devotion and parties.

Felix Ordonez/Reuters/File
A group of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago, or 'Way of St. James,' in Burgos, Spain, in July 2010. The Christian pilgrimage treks across northern Spain to the tomb of St. James the Greater in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela – but Wednesday's train crash in the city, which left 79 dead and scores injured – has cast a pall over the holiday.

A scorching sun was starting to settle at 8:41 p.m. on July 24 in Santiago de Compostela, on the eve of the city’s busiest and most festive weeks of the year. Throngs of residents and visitors had filled the city’s main plaza to count down the traditional Burning of the Cathedral, a fireworks and light display that brings the heart of the Spanish pilgrim city to life.

But at that moment, for reasons still to be determined, Santiago and the region of Galicia suffered a shocking blow. A packed high-speed passenger train only minutes away from the main city rail station derailed, killing 78 people and injuring scores. At least 32 remain in critical condition.

“Tragedies impose character on its people. July 24 will no longer be the eve of a celebration, but the commemoration of one of our saddest days. We will be forever sadder,” said Galicia regional government leader Alberto Nuñez Feijóo on Thursday.

July 25 is the day of Apostle Santiago, or the Feast of St. James. It’s also the National Galicia Day, a day to celebrate the region’s patriotism and unique culture. Coupled with the beginning of the August vacation period in Spain, it's time when the city sees the number of pilgrims and tourists visiting the city and its surroundings swell for three weeks on back-to-back festivals that intertwine devotion, parties, and leisure.

“Today, on Galicia Day, we suffer together. Rest in peace,” Mr. Feijóo said. Thanking those around the world who sent messages of solidarity, he added that “any word is insufficient for an emotion that can only be described with tears.”

Wednesday’s light show was canceled almost immediately, and the raucousness of a city geared for weeks of celebration was replaced with sirens and solemn silence and respect. On Thursday, Galicia declared seven days of mourning while Spain declared three. Dozens of concerts, sporting events, cultural activities, art exhibits, parties, and patriotic marches were canceled or postponed.

It wasn’t just Santiago. All of Galicia went silent as all municipalities joined the mourning period, as residents and visitors, party-goers and pilgrims alike, were consumed by the tragedy.

A holiday marred

According to Roman Catholic tradition, Apostle Santiago, one of the closest of Jesus’ followers, was decapitated in Jerusalem, but his remains were miraculously returned on July 25 to the land he evangelized, Hispania.

Eight centuries later, a hermit followed a luminous spectacle – thus the city's name "Compostela," which means starry field – and found the remains of the apostle, around which the entire city was built as one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites, after Jerusalem and Rome.

Since then, Santiago de Compostela especially, but also Galicia and Spain, revolve around the apostle. The Spanish Reconquista, which expelled Moorish forces from the Iberian Peninsula, was anchored in the image of St. James. The modern war cry of Spain’s Armed Forces, "¡Santiago y cierra, España!" or "Santiago and attack, Spain!" originates from the era.

Christian pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago – comprised of several routes partly retracing the evangelical routes of the apostle – start pouring in around the Feast of St. James and through August. The majority are Spaniards, followed by Europeans.

But now, the traditional Galician costumes and giant heads that feature in parades have been put away; concerts and cookouts will not be held.

And for the foreseeable future, the two days of festivities will also be a time of remembrance for those who lost their lives and for those who risked theirs to save many injured.

“As someone from Santiago,” said Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Thursday, "believe me when I say this is the saddest Day of the Apostle of my life."

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