The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Black boxes block escape

Ludhiana, May 16: Survivors of the Frontier Mail blaze that killed 36 people, including five children, have complained that heavy black boxes had blocked doors, trapping the victims inside the burning coaches.

As commissioner for railway safety Bhupinder Singh began an inquiry today, the authorities clammed up. “The probe has begun and it would be premature to give any statement,” a senior railway official said.

But survivors said “heavy black boxes”, belonging to security personnel travelling on the train, had been kept in front of some doors. Gathered at the civil hospital to identify bodies of family members who were burnt alive, they blamed the railway for allowing the doors to be blocked, making escape impossible. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing compensation.

“Please, we will talk later. We want those responsible for the tragedy to be punished,” a relative said, clutching a child whose mother had been killed.

At the hospital, people wandered helplessly trying to identify relatives. With most bodies beyond recognition, the authorities were planning a mass cremation. “We cannot keep them longer than three days here for fear of others contracting disease,” a junior doctor said.

Sources said the inquiry would focus on a stove and a cigarette found in coach S-4, where the fire is said to have started. Short circuit has been ruled out. As has sabotage, Ludhiana station master Ashok Kumar said.

Railway officials refused to comment on allegations that S-4 was crowded to double its capacity. Divisional railway manager, Ferozepur, H.S. Punia, who was on the train, said: “The probe is on. I have nothing to say.”

Singh said: “I have started my inquiry earlier than scheduled as I want to gather all the clues I can. I am not jumping to conclusions. The probe report will take more time than usual.”

The inquiry report on the Khanna accident that killed 212 in November 1998 is still awaited, four years after it was to have been submitted.

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