© Reuters. People try to escape from toppled compartments, following the deadly collision of two trains, in Balasore, India June 2, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a video. ANI/Reuters TV via REUTERS
By Jatindra and Abinaya V
BHUBANESWAR, India (Reuters) -At least 261 people have died in India’s worst rail accident in over two decades, officials said on Saturday, after a passenger train went off the tracks and hit another one in the east of the country.
One train in Friday’s accident also hit a freight train parked nearby in the district of Balasore in Odisha state, leaving a tangled mess of smashed rail cars and injuring 1,000.
A possible signal error led to the tragedy, according to an initial government report seen by Reuters.
The death toll has reached 261, said K. S. Anand, chief public relations officer of South Eastern Railway. The AFP news agency had earlier quoted an official as saying 288 people had died.
Surviving passenger Anubha Das said he would never forget the scene. “Families crushed away, limbless bodies and a bloodbath on the tracks,” he said.
Video footage showed derailed train coaches and damaged tracks, with rescue teams searching the mangled carriages to pull the survivors out and rush them to hospital.
People were seen searching for their relatives at the site and nearby hospitals.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached the scene, talked to the rescue workers and inspected the wreckage. He is likely to visit hospitals and see the survivors.
A witness involved in rescue operations said the screams and wails of the injured and the relatives of those killed were chilling. “It was horrific and heart-wrenching,” he said.
Families of the dead will receive 1 million rupees ($12,000), while the seriously injured will get 200,000 rupees, with 50,000 rupees for minor injuries, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said. Some state governments have also announced compensation.
“It’s a big, tragic accident,” Vaishnaw told reporters after inspecting the accident site. “Our complete focus is on the rescue and relief operation, and we are trying to ensure that those injured get the best possible treatment.”
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 around 7 p.m. (1330 GMT) on Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express from Bengaluru to Howrah in West Bengal collided with the Coromandel Express from Kolkata to Chennai.
After an extensive search-and-rescue – involving hundreds of fire department personnel, police officers and National Disaster Response Force teams as well as sniffer dogs – authorities have ended the rescue operation. Workers have started clearing debris to restore rail traffic.
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 transports more than 13 million people every day. But the state-run monopoly has had a patchy safety record because of ageing infrastructure.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik described the crash as “extremely tragic”. The state has declared Saturday a day of mourning as a mark of respect to the victims.
Opposition Congress party leader Jairam Ramesh said the accident reinforced why safety should always be the foremost priority of the rail network.
Modi’s administration has launched high-speed trains as part of plans to modernise the network, but critics say it has not focused enough on safety and upgrading ageing infrastructure.
India’s deadliest railway accident was in 1981 when a train plunged off a bridge into a river in Bihar state, killing an estimated 800 people.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed condolences over the accident.
($1 = 82.4000 Indian rupees)