Hyderabad/Nellore, July 30: At least 32 people on the Delhi-to-Chennai Tamil Nadu Express died in a pre-dawn fire whose intensity jammed six of the possible eight exits in the affected coach even before most of the passengers had woken up, officials said.
About a dozen saved themselves by jumping off the inferno-on-wheels, which was hurtling at 110kmph but had begun to slow down, through the lone door whose lock hadn’t jammed in the heat and the only emergency (grill-less) window among four that could be opened.
The blaze ate through one of the sealed vestibules, too, allowing some other passengers to escape into an adjacent coach.
Officials said 25 injured passengers had been admitted to hospitals in Nellore town, about 1km from Monday morning’s tragedy site in Andhra Pradesh, and in Chennai.
A sleepless Ram Sudhakar, 32, had been the first passenger on coach S11 to notice the fire, which broke out near a toilet around 4.15am, and pull the chain. By then, the Nellore station manager too had seen the leaping flames as the super-fast express passed by his station and raised the alarm, railway sources said.
In Calcutta, railway minister Mukul Roy hinted at a blast behind the fire, saying a passenger was apparently carrying some inflammable substance and that some of the injured and a level-crossing gateman had heard a bang. He refused to say “at this stage” whether he suspected sabotage.
Sudhakar too said he had heard a “loud sound”. Nellore collector B. Sridhar and superintendent of police B.V. Ramana Kumar, however, blamed a short circuit near the toilet.
“The train was moving at 110km per hour. All the passengers were asleep when the fire broke out. People were not able to come out immediately,” Sridhar said. “The fire spread fast.... Some could come out; the others succumbed.”
Officials counted 19 men, six women and three children among the dead, saying the remaining four bodies had been charred too badly even for gender identification. The toll could rise to 35 since some bodies were still to be extricated, a district official said.
S11, the only coach affected, is believed to have been carrying 72 passengers, most of whom were from Jaipur, Chennai, Vijayawada and Warangal.
Passenger Chitra, a Delhi resident, said she heard screams for help and jumped off the moving train. “There was smoke all around and I jumped out.”
Sahaj Ahmed from Jammu and Kashmir said he probably stepped on some bodies as he ran “for my life” towards the exit in the pitch darkness. “There was smoke and panic all around.”
A few bodies were found crouched near an emergency window, suggesting the victims were trying to open it.
After the train came to a halt, the police arrived and began rescue operations. S11 was detached from the rest of the train and fire tenders doused the flames by 5.30am.
Still, the rescue workers struggled with the fierce temperatures inside the coach as they brought the blackened bodies out and laid them in rows along the tracks.
Some passengers from adjacent compartments said they had shut most of the windows as a precaution against rain.
“Therefore we could not hear the screams of those from S11, resulting in some delay in reaching out to them,” Devanathan said.
“I woke up when people were rushing into our compartment; I was in S10,” said another passenger, Shantanu.
In Calcutta, the railway minister said: “Nothing can be excluded (as probable cause of the fire) and nothing can be said without an investigation. It will be investigated whether inflammable substances were in the compartment or whether (the fire) was caused by a short circuit.”
Roy announced Rs 5 lakh and a job for the family of each of the dead; Rs 1 lakh for those grievously injured and Rs 25,000 for those with lighter injuries. The railway ministry has ordered an inquiry by commissioner of railway safety D.K. Singh.
Mourning the loss of lives, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has asked the railways to provide all assistance to the victims.
Normal railway traffic was restored around 8.30am.