Intercity-Express trainset 51 was travelling as ICE 884 on the Munich to Hamburg route; the train was scheduled to stop at Augsburg, Nürnberg, Würzburg, Fulda, Kassel, Göttingen, and Hanover before reaching Hamburg. After stopping in Hanover at 10:30, the train continued its journey northwards. About 130 kilometres (80 mi) and forty minutes away from Hamburg and six kilometres south of central Eschede, near Celle, the steel tyre on a wheel on the third axle of the first car broke, peeled away from the wheel, and punctured the floor of the car, where it remained embedded.
What ensued was a series of events that occurred within minutes yet took investigators months to reconstruct. The tyre embedded in the rail car was seen by Jörg Dittmann, one of the passengers in Coach 1. The tyre went through an armrest between where his wife and son sat. Dittmann took his wife and son out of the damaged coach and went to inform a conductor in the third coach. The conductor, who noticed vibrations in the train, told Dittmann that company policy required him to investigate the circumstances before pulling the emergency brake. The conductor took one minute to go to the site in Coach 1. According to Dittmann, the train had begun to sway from side to side by then. The conductor did not show a willingness to stop the train immediately at that point and wished to investigate the incident more thoroughly. The crash occurred just when Dittman was about to show the armrest puncture to the conductor.
As the train passed over the first of two points, the embedded tyre slammed against the guide rail of the points, pulling it from the railway ties. This guide rail also penetrated the floor of the car, becoming embedded in the vehicle and lifting the axle carriage off the rails. At 10:59 local time (08:59 UTC), one of the now-derailed wheels struck the points lever of the second switch, changing its setting. The rear axles of car number 3 were switched onto a parallel track, and the entire car was thereby thrown into the piers supporting a 300-tonne roadway overpass, destroying them.
Car number 4, likewise derailed by the violent deviation of car number 3 and still travelling at 200 kilometres per hour (125 mph), passed intact under the bridge and rolled onto the embankment immediately behind it. Two Deutsche Bahn railway workers who had been working near the bridge were killed instantly when the derailed car crushed them. The breaking of the car couplings caused the automatic emergency brakes to engage and the mostly undamaged first three cars came to a stop. The detached front power car came to a stop after passing the Eschede train station, three kilometers (two miles) farther along the track.
Coaches one and two cleared the bridge. Coach three hit the bridge, which began to collapse. Coach four cleared the bridge, moved away from the track, and hit a group of trees. The bridge pieces crushed the rear half of coach five. The restaurant coach, six, was crushed to a 15 cm (6 in) height. With the track now obstructed completely by the collapsed bridge, the remaining cars jackknifed into the rubble in a zig-zag pattern: Cars 7, the service car, the three first-class cars numbered 10 to 12, and the rear power car all derailed and slammed into the pile. The resulting mess was likened to a partially collapsed folding ruler. An automobile was also found in the wreckage. It belonged to the two railway technicians and was probably parked on the bridge before the accident.Power car 401 051 of the crashed train sustained minor damage. It is still in use (Munich, August 2007).