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25 killed as train turns into inferno

Hyderabad, May 22: Pavani, Dharmanna, Gopal and Saroja had one thing in common: all construction labourers heading to Bangalore in search of jobs, they were killed in sleep early today.

All four were burnt alive in a general compartment of the Hampi Express around 3.15am, just two hours after they had boarded the train at Bellary in Karnataka.

“I was half asleep when I noticed the flames in my compartment. I jumped out first,” said Rajanna, a relative of the four who were in coach no. 3 that jumped rails when the express possibly overshot a signal and rammed into a stationary goods train in Andhra Pradesh.

“I was crying and screaming for help to get the passengers out. But I did not dare enter the burning compartment again,” he told rail officials at an Andhra hospital.

At least 25 people were killed and over 40 injured when the 16591 Hampi Express, travelling from Hubli to Bangalore, crashed into the Mysore new goods terminal train some 100km from Penugonda railway station in Anantapur district. The accident site is about 425km from Hyderabad.

By the impact of the crash, three coaches of the Hampi Express — a luggage coach and two general compartments but one reserved for women — jumped rails, with the first and third catching fire. Firefighters and rail officials used metal-cutters to force their way inside and pull out passengers. Those injured were shifted to hospitals in Penukonda, Hindupur and Anantapur.

Villagers from Penugonda and Bagepalli checkpost said the shrieks and cries of pain emanating from the women’s coach were heart-wrenching. “We could not do anything but pour water on the bodies and offer drinking water to those still alive,” said Ramakrishna Reddy, a farmer who rushed to the site with a tractor laden with water cans to help the injured.

Thirty-year-old Ratnamma, who boarded the train along with 20 others at Gooty in Andhra, told PTI the cries of burning passengers still rang in her ears. “It was unbearable to watch our fellow passengers burning in front of us, while we stood helpless. We could not muster up the courage to save our brothers and sisters,” she said after a relief train brought her to Bangalore.

She said she was jolted out of sleep when the train stopped with a thud and her husband fell off his upper berth on children sleeping below. “I thought it was an earthquake. Only when I saw other passengers jostling to get out, throwing their luggage outside and women wailing, I realised something was wrong.”

The sight that greeted her was “one I cannot forget”, she said. A train bogie was in flames, there were charred bodies strewn all around, and bleeding and injured passengers, including children, were desperately crying for help.

Preliminary reports said the express driver overshot a signal and raced towards the goods train that was already standing on the track. The driver and his assistant have been hospitalised and are being questioned, police and rail officials said. A case has been registered.

Sources said the crash toll would have been higher had the general compartments —these are not reserved — been more crowded. Passengers were fewer because the train had departed around 9pm, they said, and because the doors were closed for fear of robbers.

But Narayanappa, a survivor, suggested the closed doors may have been the reason for some deaths. “The doors got jammed, so only a few passengers could jump out during the panic situation,” he said. His mother Padmakka and uncle Goverdhan were injured and died later in hospital.

Rail authorities said it was difficult to provide a list of dead as most deaths occurred in the general compartments. “We are trying our best to establish the identity of the dead with help from survivors,” said a public relations officer of South Central Railway.

According to Harinath Reddy, the deputy superintendent of Government Railway Police, Guntakal, most victims appeared to be labourers from Hubli, Bellary and Hospet in Karnataka. Those killed included at least three women and two children, he said.

Officials said the crash straddled two railway zones as the train belonged to South Western Railway and the accident occurred in the South Central Railway zone. A train was rushed from Bangalore with food, metal cutters, cranes, medicine and relief personnel. But the local police, alerted by a train passenger, had begun rescue work early.

Anantpur MLA B.K. Parthasarathy said: “I have to say that without the help of local villagers, rescue would have been even tougher and more would have perished.”

Railway minister Mukul Roy, who reached the spot by afternoon, announced compensation and jobs for families of the victims. The Bangalore government has announced ex gratia for families of the victims.