An air-conditioned coach of Nanded Express went up in flames early on Saturday, leaving 26 passengers burnt beyond recognition in yet another train accident in the district.
Some of the victims were charred to death in their sleep, while others were killed when they could not jump out of the compartment which caught fire due to a suspected short circuit in the air conditioning unit. Eight people were seriously injured and 30 escaped with minor injuries. Two children are among those dead.
While 25 people had died in an accident involving the Hampi Express in the district last year, 35 people were charred to death in a fire on the Tamil Nadu Express in Nellore in June 2012.
The Railway Ministry has ordered two inquiries into the incident even as opposition parties trained their guns on the Centre for the frequent train accidents. All 26 bodies have been brought to Bangalore’s Victoria Hospital for autopsy. Since the bodies were charred beyond recognition, a DNA test will be done to confirm their identities. Most of the passengers in the coach were from Karnataka. Nine victims have been identified by relatives based on their jewellery.
At 3.45 am, as the 16594 Bangalore-Nanded Express reached Kothacheruvu level crossing, some 6-7 kilometres from Puttaparthi, passengers of the B1 AC three-tier coach noticed flames and tried to pull the chain to bring the train to a halt.
There were 64 passengers on board when the flames erupted. As the fire started to spread, passengers ran helter-skelter and a pregnant woman passenger jumped out of the train and died. The remaining passengers tried to reach the other compartments but could not as one side of the coach was closed.
Frantic jostling ensued. “We tried to break the windows but could not,” a survivor told Express.
“Passengers rushed to one end and there was utter chaos. The exit doors did not open easily and it was after breaking the toilet window that some of us managed to escape,” a survivor said.
It was a call by a passenger to the Bangalore control room that saved several lives. Officials at the control room alerted their counterparts at Puttaparthi who in turn notified the driver, who finally brought the train to a halt.
“The train went ahead with the burning compartment for more than five minutes before it came to a halt. As it had just moved out of Puttaparthi railway station, it had not picked up much speed. Moreover, it was also running slowly due to the foggy conditions,” another survivor said.
Within minutes, the district administration was alerted and police and fire tenders were rushed to the spot. Rescue workers pulled out the injured and shifted them to Puttaparthi Super Speciality Hospital and other hospitals at Kothacheruvu, Dharmavaram and Anantapur. According to Railway officials, it was the coach attendant who first noticed something was amiss. He noticed smoke in the bay of the coach and alerted passengers.
Harish Kumar, a relative of one of the survivors Narahari Rao, told Express that Rao had gone to the toilet when the fire broke out. When he got out, he found that flames had engulfed the coach and escaped by jumping out of the toilet window. He was injured and is being treated at a hospital.
Union Railways Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, who visited the spot, said there have been complaints of people smoking cigarettes and consuming liquor on trains. He hinted at the possibility of a carelessly-thrown cigarette butt having caused the fire. The minister said only nine bodies have been identified and efforts are on to find the kin of the victims through the addresses and phone numbers given by them.
Kharge announced an ex-gratia of `5 lakh to the families of the deceased, `1 lakh to those who suffered serious injuries and `50,000 to those with minor injuries.
Railway Board chairman Arunendra Kumar said prima facie there could be two reasons for the accident — short circuit or the presence of inflammable material.
“Preliminary reports indicate that the cause of the fire was electrical short-circuit near the air-conditioning unit,” Andhra Pradesh DGP B Prasada Rao said.
(With Bangalore Bureau and PTI inputs)
TRAIL OF Accidents
May, 22 2012: 25 people died when the Bangalore-bound Hampi Express collided with a goods train in Anantapur district in AP.
June 30, 2012: 35 passengers died and 25 injured when a coach of Tamil Nadu Express caught fire near Nellore in AP.