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Pilgrim Express turns train of death

- Early-morning fire kills at least 26 sleeping passengers; minister blames short circuit

Hyderabad, Dec. 28: At least 26 passengers died in their sleep today after an early-morning blaze swept through an air-conditioned compartment of the Maharashtra-bound “Pilgrim Express”, an informal name for the train that links four sites popular with the devout.

Among those charred to death were two children as the bogie, which apparently didn’t have fire-extinguishers, turned into a death trap of smoke and burning curtains before the driver stopped the train from Bangalore near Kothacheruvu station, about 14km from Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh.

Puttaparthi, a town in Anantapur district, was the home of Satya Sai Baba, the late spiritual leader whose ashram draws millions of pilgrims every year, including the rich and the famous.

Railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge, who reached the spot about 430km from Hyderabad, has announced a probe by the railway safety commissioner.

Junior railway minister Kotla Suryaprakash Reddy, who also reached the spot, blamed the fire on a “short circuit”, based on a preliminary report by technicians.

“The fire has now been brought under control but there are casualties,” agencies quoted railway board chairman Arunendra Kumar as saying.

Officials later isolated the gutted compartment and, by 6.45am, the express, which had left Bangalore last night, was back on its journey towards Nanded.

Apart from Puttaparthi, the Hazur Sahib Bangalore-Nanded Express also connects Mantralayam, Shirdi and Nanded, popular pilgrim sites in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

While Mantralayam, in Andhra’s Kurnool district, is famous for its association with 17th-century saint Swami Raghavendra, Shirdi in Maharashtra is best known as the late 19th-century home of the Shirdi Sai Baba.

The train is popular with south Indian Sikhs, too. The Takht Sachkhand Shri Hazur Abchalnagar Sahib, one of the five seats of Sikhism, is located on the banks of the Godavari in Nanded, Maharashtra, where most of the passengers were headed.

The fire broke out in the AC three-tier coach B-1 around 3.45am when most of the passengers were fast asleep. Survivors said they awoke to a “burning sensation” and cries of “fire, fire”.

“There was not even a fire-extinguisher in the compartment,” said Natesh N. “The curtains were the first to catch fire, burning faster than we could react. Then the blankets caught fire.”

Anantapur district collector D.S. Lokesh Kumar, who was among the first to reach the spot along with the range deputy inspector-general of police, B. Balakrishna, recalled what he said was a “heart-breaking” scene. “Since it was an AC compartment, the passengers had no chance to jump out of a window,” Kumar said.

Less than two months ago, another dawn blaze had cut short the Diwali trip of 45 Hyderabad-bound passengers in a speeding Volvo, in one of the worst accidents involving the luxury bus in the country.

Minister Reddy recalled the October bus fire. “The scenario in the compartment was just like that of the Volvo bus. All the bodies have turned into charred mounds of flesh. It is difficult to separate them,” he said.

Officials said only a DNA test could establish the identities of some of the victims.

Kharge said a short circuit may have triggered the fire but the inquiry would unravel the exact cause. “What are the lapses… how it happened, lack of maintenance or negligence of staff or faulty electricity, everything will be done.”

Near Kothacheruvu station, survivors and residents milled around the B-1 coach long after the train had resumed its journey. “I helped 20 people escape the fire after the train stopped but couldn’t save my wife and disabled father,” said Shravan, 32, who was in the AC compartment.

Natesh said his brother-in-law Vivek broke the window in one of the lavatories helping some to escape.

Among the dead were Basavaraju, 63, a retired teacher, and his daughter Sarvamangala, 26. His wife Annapoornamma escaped with minor injuries. Agency reports said the casualties included a two-year-old.

Fifteen passengers were injured, eight of them seriously. A five-year-old girl suffered 30 per cent burns, including facial injuries.

Sources said the driver stopped the train near Kothacheruvu station after he saw flames coming out of an air-conditioned coach. Some passengers claimed they had dialled the “100” helpline and the police alerted the railway telephone exchange.

By 9am, the last of the bodies had been brought out and sent by a special train to a Bangalore hospital for identification by relatives.

The railway minister has announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the immediate relatives of the dead, Rs 1 lakh for those seriously injured and Rs 50,000 for those who suffered minor injuries.