SZCZEKOCINY  - Rescue workers Sunday combed the wreckage after two trains crashed head-on in southern Poland, killing 16 people including a US citizen, with scores wounded.

A southbound train from Warsaw slammed head-on into another train headed north at Szczekociny, some 200 kilometres from the capital, late Saturday in the country’s worst rail disaster since 1990.

Poland’s PAP news agency said an American woman was among the dead. Fifty-six people were hospitalised Sunday, including one who was in a serious condition, emergency officials said. Ukrainian nationals were reported to be among the injured, while French and Spanish citizens were also on the trains but apparently not injured. A total of 350 passengers were on board the two trains, which collided at around 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) Saturday as they were travelling on the same track, according to Poland’s PKP railways. One was heading to the southern city of Krakow from Warsaw, while the other was bound for the capital from southeastern Przemysl.

Investigators gave no early indication as to what caused the crash, which happened on a stretch of the line that had recently been modernised, according to Transport Minister Slawomir Nowak.

The collision threw three carriages and both of the train’s locomotives off the tracks, leaving them piled high on top of each other in a mass of tangled steel.

“We heard a deafening noise and we were hurled out of our seats,” an unnamed survivor told Polish media after escaping from the wreckage late Saturday. “We saw crushed bodies pinned beneath seats and we saw parts of bodies inside and outside the train wagons,” the survivor said.

“It was terrifying. The scale of destruction is huge,” one of the first firemen on the scene told PAP.

Another survivor told the TVN24 news channel of dead bodies as well as people still alive but pinned under twisted metal.

President Bronislaw Komorowski visited the scene, saying: “People from across Poland and citizens from other countries suffered in the catastrophe,” adding that he would call a period of national mourning once the rescue operation was completed.

Rescue workers toiled overnight to pull survivors from the wreckage.

Emergency services spokesman Pawel Fratczak told AFP: “I can confirm 16 fatalities. We have just pulled a victim from the wreckage, but we cannot rule out other casualties until all the wreckage is searched.”

The operation to evacuate the injured, however, “is now over,” he said. “We have sent in six sniffer dogs specially trained to locate survivors and bodies. They did not indicate anything.”

Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters at the scene late Saturday: “This is the worst catastrophe in years.”

It was the worst rail accident in Poland since 1990, when 16 people were killed in a collision between two trains in the Warsaw suburb of Ursus.

Poland’s worst train accident was in 1980 when 67 people died and 62 were injured in a collision between a passenger and a freight train in Otoczyn, near Torun, northern Poland.