JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It's a common sight on South African roads each morning at peak hour: black laborers crammed into the backs of open trucks and SUVs, no matter how bitter the weather.
Early Friday morning, 26 fruit pickers died when a truck driver carrying about 45 workers apparently misjudged the speed of a coal train at a rural crossing in the province of Mpumalanga, about 250 east of Johannesburg, officials said. The train sliced the truck in half, dragging the vehicle for hundreds of yards along the track, scattering bodies.
Officials said the truck driver was being interviewed by police and could face murder charges.
Nineteen people died at the scene of the accident on the N4 highway, between the towns of Malelane and Hectorspruit. Others died at hospitals, with officials warning that the toll could rise with many others being treated.
There were doubts as to the exact number of dead because the impact of the crash tore many of the bodies to pieces.
"It is a very gruesome scene," regional police spokesman Joseph Mabusa told Reuters news service. "Some bodies are without heads and some without limbs. Forensic teams are still working on the scene."
In a country where automobile drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts, trade unions federation spokesman Patrick Craven said in a statement that the collision "exposes once again the scandal of workers being transported in open trucks." He called for an inquiry into the tragedy.
Government officials said there was no indication of negligence on the part of rail authorities or the train driver. Crossing warning signals were in place and the train engineer sounded his horn to warn the truck driver of its approach, they said.
More than 14,000 South Africans die in road accidents each year.
A similar accident shocked the nation last year when a driver carrying 14 children to school in a van misjudged the speed of a train at a crossing. The train smashed into the vehicle, killing 10 children. The driver was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years jail.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: The remains of the truck that was carrying fruit pickers when it was struck by a train Friday in South Africa's Mpumalanga province. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency