By Abinaya V and Jatindra Dash
BAHANAGA, INDIA (Reuters) – At least 288 people have died in India’s worst rail crash in more than two decades, officials said on Saturday, after a passenger train derailed and hit some another in an accident, a preliminary report blamed on signal failure. .
A train in Friday’s crash also hit a nearby parked freight train in Balasore district of eastern Odisha state, leaving a tangle of broken carriages and injuring 803 people.
The death toll has reached 288, said South Eastern Railway public relations officer KS Anand.
Bodies are still trapped in the mangled coaches and the rescue operation is continuing, a Reuters witness said, while the death toll is expected to rise.
A preliminary report says the crash was the result of a signal failure, Anand said.
“The Coromandel Express was supposed to run on the main line, but a signal was given for the loop line instead, and the train crashed into a freight train already parked there. Its carriages then fell onto the tracks either side, also derailing the Howrah Superfast Express,” he said.
Surviving passenger Anubha Das said he will never forget the scene. “Families crushed, bodies without limbs and bloodshed on the tracks,” he said.
Video footage showed derailed train carriages and damaged tracks, with rescue teams searching the mangled carriages to pull survivors out and rush them to hospital.
Corpses lay on the bloodstained floor of a school used as a makeshift morgue, and police helped relatives identify the bodies, covered in white cloths and placed in shackled bags.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the scene, spoke to rescuers and inspected the wreckage. He also met survivors in hospitals.
“(I) provided an update on the situation at the Odisha tragedy site. Words cannot express my deep sadness. We are committed to providing all possible assistance to those affected,” Modi said.
A witness involved in the rescue operations said the screams and cries of the injured and relatives of those killed were frightening. “It was horrific and heartbreaking,” he said.
Families of the dead will receive 1 million rupees ($12,000), while the seriously injured will receive 200,000 rupees, including 50,000 rupees for minor injuries, Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said. Some state governments have also announced compensation.
“It’s a big and tragic accident,” Vaishnaw told reporters after inspecting the crash site. “We are fully focused on rescue and relief operations, and we try to ensure that the injured receive the best treatment possible.”
“I was sleeping,” an unidentified male survivor told NDTV News. “I was woken up by the sound of the train derailing. Suddenly I saw 10-15 dead people. I managed to get out of the carriage, then I saw a lot of dismembered bodies.”
Video footage from Friday showed rescuers climbing onto one of the mangled trains to find survivors, while passengers called for help and sobbed next to the wreckage.
“We rescued at least 30 people, and some of them managed to survive, but three or four of them died,” said Sanjeev Rout, an electrician. A few meters away, rescuers are trying to make their way into a damaged red bus.
The collision happened around 7:00 p.m. (13:30 GMT) on Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express from Bengaluru to Howrah in West Bengal collided with the Coromandel Express from Kolkata to Chennai.
Indian Railways claims to carry more than 13 million people every day. But the state monopoly has an uneven safety record due to aging infrastructure.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik described the accident as “extremely tragic”.
The leader of the opposition Congress party, Jairam Ramesh, said the accident reinforced why safety should always be the rail network’s top priority.
Modi’s administration has launched high-speed trains as part of plans to upgrade the network, but critics say it has not focused enough on safety and upgrading aging infrastructure.
Experts said Friday’s train crash dealt a blow to Modi’s makeover plans for the railways.
India’s deadliest rail accident happened in 1981 when a train plunged off a bridge into a river in Bihar state, killing around 800 people.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed their condolences over the crash.
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