NEW DELHI (AP) — Rescuers waded through piles of debris and wreckage to extract bodies and free people Saturday after two passenger trains derailed in India, killing more than 280 people. Hundreds more were trapped in more than a dozen mutilated train cars overnight in one of the country’s deadliest train crashes in decades.
The crash, which happened about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Kolkata on Friday night, led to a chaotic scene as rescuers climbed to the top of wrecked trains to open doors and windows to using cutting torches to free the survivors.
About 900 people were injured in the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, said PK Jena, the state’s top administrative official. The cause was under investigation.
At least 280 bodies were recovered overnight and on Saturday morning, Sudhanshu Sarangi, Odisha Fire Chief, told The Associated Press. He said more than 800 injured passengers had been taken to various hospitals, many of them in critical condition.
Rescuers were cutting through the wrecked cars to find people who might still be trapped. Sarangi said it was possible people were trapped below, but it was unlikely they were still alive.
“At 10 p.m. (Friday) we were able to rescue the survivors. After that it was about picking up corpses,” he said. “It’s very, very tragic. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career.”
Ten to 12 carriages from a train derailed and debris from some of the mangled carriages fell onto a nearby track, said Amitabh Sharma, spokesman for the Ministry of Railways. The debris was hit by another passenger train coming from the opposite direction, causing up to three cars on the second train to derail, he added.
A third freight train was also involved, the Press Trust of India reported, but there was no immediate confirmation of this from the railway authorities. PTI said some of the derailed passenger cars hit freight train carriages.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the night as footage showed smashed cars that had completely overturned. Dozens of corpses, covered in white sheets, lay on the ground near the train tracks as residents and rescuers rushed to help the survivors.
Teams of rescuers and police continued to search the ruins on Saturday morning as the search operation continued, amid fears the death toll could rise further. Dozens of people also showed up at a local hospital to donate blood.
Officials said 1,200 rescuers worked with 115 ambulances, 50 buses and 45 mobile health units overnight at the crash site. Saturday was declared a day of mourning in Odisha when Chief State Minister Naveen Patnaik reached the district to meet injured passengers.
Villagers said they rushed to the site to evacuate people after hearing a loud noise created by train carriages rolling off the tracks.
“The local people really went out of their way to help us. They not only helped get people out, but they collected our luggage and brought us water,” said Rupam Banerjee, a survivor, as quoted by PTI.
Passenger Vandana Kaleda said inside the train during the derailment people were “falling on top of each other” as her coach violently shook and swerved off the tracks.
“As I was coming out of the toilet, all of a sudden the train tilted. I lost my balance. … Everything flipped. People started falling on top of each other and I was shocked and I couldn’t understand what had happened. My mind stopped working,” she said, adding that she felt lucky to survive.
Another survivor who did not give his name said he was sleeping when the impact woke him up. He said he saw other passengers with broken limbs and disfigured faces.
The derailed Coromandel Express was traveling from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, PTI said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his thoughts are with the bereaved families.
“May the injured recover soon,” tweeted Modi, who said he had spoken to the railways minister and “all possible help” was being offered.
Despite the government’s efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on Indian Railways, the largest railway network under one management in the world.
In August 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in one of India’s worst rail accidents.
In 2016, a passenger train skidded between the cities of Indore and Patna, killing 146 people.
Most rail accidents are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment.
More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, traveling 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of track.
AP journalist Chonchui Ngashangva contributed to this report.