The death toll from the collision of two Indian passenger trains in Odisha state has surged to 288 and more than 850 are injured, a state government official told AFP on Saturday, making the rail incident the country’s deadliest in more than two decades.
Sudhanshu Sarangi, director general of Odisha Fire Services, also said that “rescue work is still going on” and there were “a lot of serious injuries”, according to AFP.
Chief secretary Pradeep Jena said on Twitter that more than 200 ambulances had been called to the scene of Friday’s crash in Odisha’s Balasore district and 100 additional doctors, on top of 80 already there, had been mobilised.
Early on Saturday morning, Reuters video footage showed police officials moving bodies covered in white cloths off the railway tracks.
“I was asleep,” an unidentified male survivor told NDTV news. “I was woken up by the noise of the train derailing. Suddenly I saw 10-15 people dead. I managed to come out of the coach, and then I saw a lot of dismembered bodies.”
Video footage from Friday showed rescuers climbing up one of the mangled trains to find survivors, while passengers called for help and sobbed next to the wreckage.
The collision occurred at about 7pm local time (2.30pm Irish time) on Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express, running from Bengaluru to Howrah, West Bengal, collided with the Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata to Chennai.
Authorities have provided conflicting accounts on which train derailed first to become entangled with the other. The ministry of railways said it has initiated an investigation into the incident.
Although Jena and some media reports have suggested a freight train was also involved in the crash, railway authorities have yet to comment on that possibility.
An extensive search-and-rescue operation has been mounted, involving hundreds of fire department personnel and police officers as well as sniffer dogs. National Disaster Response Force teams were also at the site.
On Friday, hundreds of young people lined up outside a government hospital in Odisha's Soro to donate blood.
According to Indian Railways, its network facilitates the transportation of more than 13 million people every day. But the state-run monopoly has had a patchy safety record because of ageing infrastructure.
The state has declared Saturday a day of mourning as a mark of respect to the victims.
Ompal Bhatia, a survivor of the three-train crash, at first thought he was dead. When the train he was travelling in went off-track, Bhatia was with three friends on his way to Chennai for work.
The 25-year-old had spent most of the four-hour journey on the Coromandel Express standing. Bhatia, who works in the plywood business, said that just before the trains crashedmsome people were getting ready to sleep.
The rail car he was in, S3, was so full that there was only standing space. He had held on to a chain, as did his friends.
The train is often used by daily wage workers, and people who work as cheap labour in industries around Chennai and Bangalore. The coach Bhatia was traveling in was not air-conditioned.
The train, traveling past hills along India’s eastern coast, takes more than 24 hours to complete the journey of more than 1,600km. Many, like Bhatia, travel the distance in over-crowded compartments, with only standing space.
It was dusk. Some who had seats were finishing their dinner, while others were trying to rest.
Another traveler in the same rail car, Moti Sheikh (30), was also standing and chatting with a group of six other men from his village. They were planning to eat, and then sleep sitting on the floor as they didn’t have seats.
Suddenly there was a loud, violent noise, Bhatia and Sheikh said, and they felt the train suddenly start to move backwards. Sheikh first thought it was the sound of brakes, but then the coach tumbled.
“When the accident happened, we thought we were dead. When we realised we were alive, we started making our way towards the emergency window to get out of the train. The rail car had gone off the track and had fallen to one side,” Bhatia told Reuters over the phone on Saturday.
As he and his friends got out, he said there was chaos all around.
“We saw a lot of dead people. Everybody was either trying to save their lives or looking for loved ones,” he said. Fortunately, he and his friends survived.
Sheikh said that he and his friends also felt they would not survive. “We were crying when we came out,” he said, adding that help came only after about 20 minutes.
The Coromandel Express had gone off track, hit a goods train that was parked there, and then collided with a second train coming from the opposite direction.
A preliminary report has blamed a signal failure for the accident.
Archana Paul, a housewife from West Bengal, was in the other train, the Howrah Yesvantpur Express, when the crash happened.
“There was a massive noise, and everything became dark,” she said.
Travelling with her brother and 10-year-old son, Paul realised the train had derailed. “I was okay, so I started searching for my son and brother, but could not see them.”
She said people started to slowly get to their feet. “They asked me to get out, but I said no, I need to search for my son. But they insisted I first get out.”
She was brought out of the rail car and waited for her son to emerge. But he didn’t, and as she was bleeding she was put in an ambulance and taken to a hospital in Balasore.
Lying in a hospital bed, Paul started to cry as she asked for help to find her son.
Also traveling in the Howrah Yeshvantpur Express was Kaushida Das, about 55 years old. She survived the crash but her daughter died.
“Even though I have survived, there is nothing to live for. My daughter was everything to me,” she said.
India’s deadliest railway incident occurred in 1981 when a train plunged off a bridge and into a river in Bihar state, killing an estimated 800 people. – Reuters