The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Circle of fire stays with survivors

Ladhowal, May 15: Some said they heard a “whoosh” and smelt a whiff of “gas”. Not Anjali.

“Where are they'” Her broken voice played this one line, again and again. She was searching for five members of her family. “Where are they'”

Anjali remembered no sound, she recalled no smell. Just the blaze.

“The fire simply engulfed us.”

The flames had died but many survivors of the blaze in three coaches of Frontier Mail this morning were still hemmed in by an invisible circle of fire.

Like Anjali, Shiv Narain was in S-4, the carriage where most deaths occurred.

Narain was carrying the money he had saved for two years for daughter Shivangi, who needs an eye operation. He lost all of it in the blaze. His brother Ajit was hurt but safe; his wife escaped with a minor injury.

“I can’t forget the cries and shrieks for help. The burning bodies. People died and were reduced to ashes while still asleep,” he said, the circle of fire leaping all around him, unseen — but there.

Sitting next to the tracks, staring at the coach reduced to cinder, Narain tried to remember the numbers of the seats he and his family occupied as they boarded the train in Delhi.

He could not. That part of life lay beyond the circle of fire. “Maut ka tandav dekha hai (I have seen the dance of death),” he mumbled.

Narain recalled the heat and the fumes — and his desperate act of forcing his two children and wife and brother out of a running train. “Gas ki boo aa rahi thi (There was a smell of gas).”

And the smell of burning flesh. “Fire had already engulfed the man sleeping next to me on berth 29,” Manju Sharma, also in S-4, said.

She woke up to find everything around her burning and the ground beneath. “I jumped and managed to find my way out. Some army personnel rescued me.”

Manju shivered as she spoke of the heat through which she ran towards S-1 and then out of train.

Into the circle of fire rushed some, like S.P. Singh, additional inspector-general, railways, and his bodyguard, Balwant.

“‘Sir, a coach is on fire,’” S.P. Singh recalled Balwant telling as he shook him out of his sleep.

S.P. Singh rushed out to call the police on his mobile phone, asked for ambulances and fire-tenders.

“Before I finished speaking, the fire had engulfed two coaches and was spreading to the third. People were flinging children out of the burning bogies.”

Balwant and some army personnel started a rescue operation.

“We rushed into the burning coaches and brought people out on our shoulders. We have no idea how many we brought out have lived or died,” said A.D. Singh, a havildar.

Sukhchain Singh and Bhagwan Singh, his colleagues, were with him.

Villagers from the nearest hamlet Phaguwal were the first to arrive after the local gurdwara called for help on the loudspeaker. “We rushed with buckets of water and even tractors. But the fire was very intense. It seemed it had spread due to some chemicals,” they said.

That the blaze swept briskly from one coach to another was borne out by S.P. Singh also. “Local residents assisted us before more force and doctors arrived. We helped detach the coaches before the fire could spread. But within minutes the damage had been done,” he said.

Uday, battling burn injuries at Dayanand Medical College in Ludhiana, was one of the first passengers to pull the alarm chain.

Kuch pata nahin chala. Minton mein jhulas gaye (It was all over in minutes).”

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