AMRITSAR: India’s northern state of Punjab’s chief minister said 59 people were killed and 57 injured in a railway accident on Friday in which a train ran over scores of people gathered on the railway tracks for a festival in the city of Amritsar.
Declining to comment on the likely reasons behind the accident, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh told reporters on Saturday that an official inquiry into the accident was underway and was expected to be completed within four weeks.
A large crowd had formed near the tracks on the city’s fringe for the burning of effigies as part of a major Hindu festival on Friday when the train sped through the gathering in darkness, officials and witnesses said.
A speeding train ran over revellers watching fireworks during a Hindu festival in northern India Friday, killing more than 50 people, with eyewitnesses saying they were given no warning before disaster struck.
The crowd had gathered on railway tracks in the city of Amritsar in Punjab state to watch a fireworks show marking the Dussehra festival when the train barrelled down the line at high speed.
"There was a lot of noise as firecrackers were being let off and it appears they (victims) were unable to hear the approaching train," a police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"There are more than 50 dead. The priority now is to take the injured to the hospital," Amritsar city police commissioner S S Srivastava told reporters.
More than 60 people who were injured were being given emergency treatment at various hospitals across the city, he added.
TV footage showed crowds gathered around the venue where an effigy of demon king Ravana was set alight, exploding into a huge fireball.
One of the revellers, Mintoo, a migrant labourer who uses one name, told the Hindustan Times daily that he had no idea the train was approaching.
"It had become dark and everyone was watching the effigy go up in flames when the train suddenly appeared," he said.
An eyewitness speaking to a local TV channel described scenes of "utter commotion" when the crowds noticed the train "coming very fast" towards them.
"Everyone was running helter-skelter and suddenly the train crashed into the crowds of people," he said.
Another eyewitness said people were busy taking pictures on their mobile phones and "they were not given any warning that they should not stand on the tracks."
Many who had climbed on rooftops for a glimpse of the action clapped and cheered as the fireworks exploded.
But the festive scenes soon turned tragic.
Four elephants killed in train collision in northeast India
"I have lost my child, I want him back," an inconsolable mother said, wailing and beating her chest.
Some relatives of the deceased blamed the authorities for allowing a "big function" to be held next to the railway track.
An AFP photographer at the scene said some victims had lost limbs in the accident while others suffered head wounds.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh ordered an investigation into the accident and announced a monetary compensation of 500,000 rupees ($6800) to each family of the victims.
"We have asked all hospitals to remain open through the night so that the injured can be treated," Singh told reporters.
He declared a day of mourning across the state, ordering all offices and educational institutions to be closed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was extremely saddened by the "heart-wrenching tragedy" and asked officials to provide immediate assistance to the injured.
India's railway network is the world's fourth largest and remains the main form of travel in the vast country, but it is poorly funded and deadly accidents often occur.
The country is home to hundreds of railway crossings that are unmanned and particularly accident prone, with people often ignoring oncoming train warnings.
A 2012 government report described the loss of 15,000 passengers to rail accidents every year in India as a 'massacre'.
Premier Modi has pledged $137 billion over five years to modernise the crumbling network.
Railway minister Piyush Goyal said Friday he was cancelling his trip to the US and returning to India immediately.
"May God give strength to the bereaved and injured," Goyal tweeted. "Railways is providing all possible assistance at the site."
Millions of Hindus celebrate the Dussehra festival by burning giant effigies in a practice symbolising the triumph of good over evil.
Disasters at religious festivals are not uncommon in India with police and volunteers often overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowds.
Im 2016, 24 people died after a stampede broke out in the Hindu holy town of Varanasi.
Extremely saddened by the train accident in Amritsar. The tragedy is heart-wrenching. My deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and I pray that the injured recover quickly. Have asked officials to provide immediate assistance that is required.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 19, 2018
Politicians trade blame
India’s railway officials and local community leaders traded blame over the accident.
India’s state railways, largely built during British colonial rule, have long faced criticism for their safety record. A political focus on keeping fares low for the 23 million passengers who use the network daily has resulted in decades of underinvestment in rail safety infrastructure, critics say.
Data from parliament in July showed that 49,790 people were killed by trains on the tracks in India between 2015 to 2017.
Friday’s accident was the worst in years but Manoj Sinha, the junior minister in charge of running the world’s fourth largest rail system, said they couldn’t be held responsible for people gathered on tracks.
“Railways cannot be blamed, railways were not informed about the ceremony. Why was it organized there? There was no notice given to the railways,” he told reporters as he visited the site early on Saturday, surrounded by officials and police.
Clothes were strewn and there were blood marks around the narrow railway lane on the outskirts of Amritsar where the accident occurred. Police said they were still looking to ascertain the number of dead as some bodies were mangled beyond recognition.
Video footage running on television stations and social media showed giant effigies burning in the distance and crackers going off while the train runs through in the foreground. Many of the victims were shooting videos on their mobile phones or taking selfies.
Witnesses also said that Friday’s ceremony was delayed by a few hours because the chief guest was running late, which meant the event ultimately coincided with the train’s scheduled arrival.
Anger turned on Navjyot Kaur Sidhu, a former Punjab state lawmaker who came late for the burning of the effigies and then left just before the accident occurred.
Bikram Singh Majitha, a leader of the regional Akali Dal party, said the effigy burning usually happens at sunset, not later.
“You can see from some of the videos that people shot that as soon as the effigy was lit, you can the train coming from the other side. It was horrific, the organizers must answer why the delay,” he said.
But Kaur, whose husband, Navjyot Singh Sidhu, is a former Indian Test cricketer and now a state minister, said effigies were burnt at six places in Amritsar and most of them were in fields near the tracks.
“The (railway authorities) should have at least issued directions to slow down the speed of the train. Such a big mistake,” Kaur said on television.
Separately, Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed grief over the incident. In a tweet, the prime minister extended condolences to the bereaved.
Saddened to learn of the tragic train accident in Amritsar India. Condolences go to the families of the deceased.— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) October 20, 2018
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