It was about 4.30 in the morning when the S-11 coach of the Delhi-Chennai Tamil Nadu Express caught fire near Nellore station in Andhra Pradesh. Most people were asleep; the train was to reach the next stop, Chennai, only at about 7 am. Panicked passengers awoke to smoke and fire and ran for the only exit they could make out in the dark. They stepped on bodies near the door. 28 people died in coach S-11 on Monday morning. (List of injured passengers
Nellore District Collector B Sridhar said a short-circuit near a toilet caused the fire. The train, he said, was moving at a speed of 110 kilometres per hour and it took nearly five minutes for it to be brought to a halt after a station master at Nellore spotted the fire. By that time, the smoke and fire had trapped many people. "I noticed the fire and opened the door since I was near it and alerted a few others. About 10 of us got off. Two or three of them went back to fetch their luggage. They never returned," a passenger said. (Read: I ran for my life in pitch darkness, says survivor
Some hapless passengers had to rush to the other end of the bogie to exit since the fire had soon engulfed one end. Bodies were found piled near a door, leading to questions on whether those passengers could not escape because that exit was blocked or jammed. Sahaj Ahmed, a man from Jammu and Kashmir who had boarded the train at Bhopal, said that as he ran in pitch dark to escape the flames, he feared that he might have stepped on some dead bodies.
Passengers were seen trying to douse the fire using water from toilets, raising more questions. Were there no fire extinguishers on the train? Anurag, Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) said, "The gatekeeper had alerted the station master (of Nellore station)... power was shut off and train was stopped... Trains are painted with a fire-retardant but in case of a big fire it does not help. Even a fire extinguisher won't help."
BV Ramana Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Nellore said, "By timely action, we were able to stop the fire from spreading to the other two coaches on the side of this coach." But for families like that of one-year-old Kaushik, it was not timely enough. The baby was rescued by a co-passenger. His mother is in hospital. His father and three-year-old brother, Harshit, are missing.
Nor for a young mother whose burnt body was found by a window of the S-11 coach still tightly embracing her baby in death.
28 bodies have been recovered but only four have been identified so far. All the bodies were charred beyond recognition. Railway personnel are doing preliminary identification based on the reservations records for the affected coach, which seated 72 and was said to be full.
At the Nellore station, there were gut-wrenching wails as people discovered that their family members were not among the survivors. Dazed survivors just sat with their belongings, numb.
Railway Minister Mukul Roy, who announced an inquiry into the fire and ex-gratia compensation for the next of kin of victims, said some injured passengers and a gateman had heard a sound when the S-11 coach caught fire. He, however, refused to say whether he suspected sabotage. (Read: Railway Minister does not rule out possibility of sabotage
But despite the uproar, the Union Railway Minister also said that the nation needs to appreciate the fact that India operates 20,000 trains every day, with two million passengers.
"It is time to make Railways safe. People will not accept any longer... Have asked PM and Planning Commission to provide everything required. India operates 20000 trains daily, carrying two million passengers. This should be appreciated," Mr Roy said.
But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy, who reached Nellore by afternoon, said "we cannot rule out sabotage yet." (Read: Political parties in Andhra Pradesh blame Railways for negligence
Today's accident is the third major one this year. On May 22, a major accident involving the Hampi Express and a goods train in Andhra Pradesh killed 25 people. Within 10 days, the Howrah-Dehradun Express derailed in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh on May 31.
In May this year, a report submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General on Railways said that safety was not a priority. The Kakodakar report recommended many safety measures in 2011. These included elimination of all level crossings (manned and unmanned) in the next five years, and all new coaches to be of safer LBH type, among others. It is still to be implemented. (Read: Fire alarm system yet to be installed in trains
(With PTI Inputs