| Rescuers carry a body at the scene of the train disaster in Khayyam near Nishapur, Iran. (AFP)
Nishapur (Iran), Feb. 18 (Reuters): Runaway train wagons laden with a lethal cocktail of fuel and fertilisers crashed into a village in northeast Iran today, blowing up and killing at least 183 people, a toll officials expected to rise.
The wagons of petrol, fertiliser and sulphur products careered down the line, derailed, caught fire and later exploded as firefighters and villagers crowded nearby.
State news agency Irna said tremors in the quake-prone region set the unmanned column of 51 wagons moving, but other officials said the tremor could have been the jolt of the blast itself, leaving unclear why the wagons had rolled away.
State television showed flames licking from mangled, charred wagons, with thick black smoke billowing into the sky at the scene in the saffron-growing province of Khorasan bordering Turkmenistan.
“Some 183 bodies have been recovered and others still may be buried under the rubble of a nearby village,” said Hassan Hadiani, a spokesman from the governor’s office in Nishapur, 20 km from the blast.
He said 260 injured had been taken to hospital and all blazes had now been extinguished in the stricken area close to the city of Nishapur, hometown of mediaeval poet Omar Khayyam — whose name the stricken village, Khayyam, carries.
Many of the wounded had severe burns and doctors were calling for urgent blood supplies.
The disaster comes amid political uncertainty, two days ahead of disputed elections in a country still recovering from a December earthquake that killed over 40,000 people in the ancient citadel city of Bam, some 650 km further south.
Irna said five villages were ravaged in the early morning blast. Ambulances and rescue helicopters rushed to the scene.
Revolutionary Guards cleared a security cordon of a kilometre around the blast site.
Television showed overturned carriages jumbled beside the tracks, with homes just metres away. Mangled pickup trucks littered the area and dazed onlookers stood around in one village on a dusty plain, with snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Fire crews had rushed to the scene to combat a smaller initial blaze when the wagons blew up in a giant explosion.
Windows were shattered for more than 10 km around and the earth could be felt shuddering up to 70 km away.
One official told Irna the dead included villagers and some of the more than 200 firefighters who had been battling the blaze.
Irna said the governor general of Nishapur was killed in the blast along with the head of the city’s electricity board, the fire chief and a 26-year old Irna journalist.
In the worst rail crash of the last quarter century, at least 575 people died in June 1989 when two passenger trains in Russia’s Ural mountains were engulfed in an explosion from a leaking gas pipeline.