At least sixty five passengers were killed and 200 injured when 13 coaches of a Mumbai-bound express train derailed in West Midnapore district early today after Maoists sabotaged the train tracks. Five of these coaches were also hit by a speeding goods train.
The incident occurred at 1:30 am when the Howrah-Kurla Lokmanya Tilak Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express was running between Khemasoli and Sardiya stations, about 135 km from Kolkata, South Eastern Railway officials said.
"We suspect Maoist hand behind the blast," Member (Traffic) Railway Board Vivek Sahai said, observing that the incident comes as Maoists are observing a 'black week'.
He said the driver of the train heard a loud explosion after which the train derailed. Railways are investigating if the tracks were tinkered with, he said.
Twenty of the bodies were extricated from the mangled coaches of the train after the 13 coaches derailed with five toppling over an adjacent track, Additional Superintendent of Police, Jhargram, Mukesh Kumar said.
Indian Air Force helicopters have been pressed into service at the accident spot and have airlifted some of the injured to hospitals.
Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, who reached the accident spot, said that the blast which caused the express train to derail took place on the first day of the 'Black week' called by the Maoists.
Banerjee said that a patrol engine had passed through the area half an hour earlier, but the timing of the blast proved disastrous with a portion of the line being blown away.
She announced Rs five lakh for the next of kin of each of the dead and Rs one lakh for the injured.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also expressed grief over the death of passengers and announces Rs two lakhs to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for each of those seriously injured.
Railways PRO Soumitra Majumdar said the train had 24 coaches. After the explosion, 13 including 10 sleeper coaches, derailed of which five were hit by the goods train coming on the opposite track.
An unreserved coach, the pantry car and luggage van also derailed, he said.
Relief officials used gas cutters to extricate trapped passengers and bodies from the mangled remains of the affected coaches. Passengers belongings lay strewn scattered on the tracks.
Angry passengers said the first signs of relief came only around 5 am, three-and-a-half hours after the incident.
Nine of the coaches which were not damaged in the blast took the injured and the other passengers to Kharagpur where they were admitted to hospital.
Anti-Maoist forces were at the spot and assisting the police and rescue personnel in extricating the bodies from four badly damaged sleeper coaches S-5, S-6, S-7 and S-8.
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has asked state Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta to immediately rush to Sardiha, the site of the accident.
"I have been asked by the chief minister to rush to the accident site with six special rescue teams and three mobile ambulances," Dasgupta told PTI before leaving for the accident spot this morning.
The state government would bear the treatment cost of the injured passengers, Chief Minister's secretariat sources said.
"State government has already rushed preliminary rescue teams with doctors and ambulances and more will follow," sources said.
A relief train left Kharagpur with a team of 12 doctors and 20 paramedics as also two doctors from the Kalaikunda airbase, the officials said.
"The S-5 and S-6 coaches bore the maximum brunt of the impact," Palash Ganti, a passenger, said.
Ganti, who was travelling in the B1 coach, said when he looked out of the window he found that half of the coaches had derailed and a goods train on the opposite tracks hitting them.
"At first, we thought Maoists have attacked to loot the train. When the accident happened no RPF personnel were present on the train," said another passenger.
This is the second Maoist attack on civilians this month. Naxals had blown up a civilian bus in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on May 17, killing at least 36 people, including 12 Special Police Officers.
Helplines have been set up at Kharagpur - (0322) 255751 and 255735, Howrah -- (033) 26382217, besides a toll free number 10722. Helplines have also been set up at Tatanagar (0657) 2290324, 2290074, 2290382, at Rourkela (0661) 2511155, Chakradharpur (06587) 238072 and Jharsuguda (06445) 270977. (With PTI inputs)