| A policeman inspects a charred coach at Ladhowal near Ludhiana. (Reuters)
Ladhowal (Punjab), May 15: Soldier Shahji M.K. wept. Even an hour earlier, he had a family he could call his own. Now, his wife, son and daughter — one 11, the other 6 — were all dead, burnt in the fire that killed 33 other passengers of the Amritsar-bound Frontier Mail.
“I saw my wife and two children burning to death,” he cried. “The smoke was so intense I could do nothing to save them.”
The fire, which broke out around 4 this morning, 10 minutes after the train had left Ludhiana, brought back images of Godhra, where 59 passengers of the Sabarmati Express were burnt alive after the train was set on fire by a mob.
That was February 27, 2002. Today, the fire started in one coach and quickly spread to two adjoining ones. Three compartments — S-3, S-4 and S-5 — were gutted. Another suffered minor damages.
Some people hiding in the toilets to escape the blaze died of smoke inhalation. At least 10 of the victims were children.
“Our preliminary inquiry has ruled out sabotage or short-circuit. We are now working on a theory of a stove bursting in the S-4 compartment. But we cannot be certain as the forensic report is yet to come,” additional director general of police (railways) S.C. Jain said.
Replying to a question earlier, Railway Board member H.C. Gupta said somebody might have tried to make an early morning cup of tea on the stove. Told of reports of sparks near the toilet of the S-3 coach from where the fire originated, Gupta said: “We are looking at all angles.”
Railway minister Nitish Kumar, who said it was “unusual that three bogies got completely burnt in a short time”, said the probe would be completed in two weeks to one month and the findings made public. He announced an ex gratia of Rs 1 lakh to each of the victims, Rs 15,000 to the seriously injured and Rs 5,000 to those who sustained minor injuries.
Northern Railway general manager R.K. Singh said the families of each of the dead will be paid an ex gratia of Rs 4 lakh.
Witnesses said the train, on a 37-hour journey to Amritsar from Mumbai, was overloaded. “People were trapped inside. They couldn’t move out because the exits were blocked by the luggage,” said Brigadier Sunil Dhawan, who led rescue efforts.
Sati Pitowali, a passenger, said he had got up to relieve himself when he noticed sparks near the toilet. “I raised an alarm, but soon there was a hue and cry all around and it was difficult to tell how the coaches had turned into a furnace.”
Survivors recalled the searing heat and the suffocation. Anjali Ganpati said she woke up to find smoke in the compartment. She ran towards the exit.
According to witnesses, passengers pulled the chain to stop the train after they saw flames leaping from a coach, while some flung their children outside in a desperate bid to save them. One of them, Shiv Narain, who was in S-4, recalled how he forced his two children, wife and brother out of the running train. “I have seen the dance of death,” he mumbled.
Villagers from Phaguwal, the nearest to the site of the tragedy, had rushed with buckets of water and pulled out many passengers to safety.
The toll could have been higher but for quick thinking by the driver, Tirath Ram, who detached the three coaches from the other bogies.
All that was left of the three burnt coaches were metal frames, while half-burnt luggage, slippers and bangles lay strewn around the compartments. Some wooden sleepers and electric poles near the charred bogies had also melted in the heat.
The roof of coach S-3 had bent. The others were, barring the paint, in relatively good shape from the outside. But inside, it was a heap of ashes.
The charred bodies have been taken to the civil hospital, where they will be kept for three days after which the Red Cross will cremate the unidentified.