LUCKNOW, India (AFP/REUTERS) – At least 119 people were killed and more than 150 injured when an Indian express train derailed in northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday (Nov 20), with the toll set to rise amid a scramble to locate survivors.
Shocked passengers recounted being woken by a violent thud, and told of their desperate search for loved-ones on the train, which was carrying at least one wedding party with the marriage season in India in full swing.
“We woke up to a great thud this morning. It was pitch dark and the noise was deafening,” one passenger told reporters as he waited with his family at the scene.
“I am lucky to be alive and safe. It was a near-death experience for us.”
Many were sleeping when 14 carriages leapt from the tracks in a remote area outside the northern city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh state.
It is the worst disaster since 2010 when a passenger train crashed into a freight train in the eastern state of West Bengal, killing 146 and injuring over 200.
“The death toll has topped 100 now,” said Daljit Singh Chawdhary, the additional police director-general.
Another 150 were injured and rushed to nearby hospitals, which had been placed on high alert after the early morning disaster.
Television images showed rescue workers using gas-powered metal cutters and other equipment to slice through severely mangled coaches strewn with suitcases and other luggage.
Anxious relatives thronged the station on Indore in central India where the train originated, many clutching pictures of their loved-ones.
Nitika Trivedi, a student who boarded the train with her family from the eastern city of Patna, said images of the bodies of her fellow passengers would long haunt her.
“I had never seen anything like this in my life before. I am shaken to the core,” she said.
Railway officials said special trains had been pressed into service for stranded travellers.
“We are also trying to clear the tracks and complete the restoration work as quickly as possible,” Vijay Kumar, a spokesman for north-central railways, told AFP.
Local media reports said the train was packed with families, some of them travelling home for weddings.
Bride-to-be Ruby Gupta, who survived the accident with a fractured arm, was desperately searching for her father.
“I have been looking everywhere for him,” she said according to the Press Trust of India.
National Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu said in a tweet the government would investigate what caused the derailment and announced compensation for the victims.
India’s creaking railway system is the world’s fourth largest, ferrying more than 20 million people each day, but it has a poor safety record, with thousands of people dying in accidents every year.
The nation suffers frequent train derailments, sometimes with tragic consequences, including another train accident in Uttar Pradesh in March last year that killed 39 people and injured 150.
In 2014 an express train ploughed into a stationary freight train, also in Uttar Pradesh, killing 26 people.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to express his condolences. “Anguished beyond words on the loss of lives due to the derailing of the Patna-Indore express. My thoughts are with the bereaved families,” Modi said.
Modi’s government has pledged to invest US$137 billion (S$195.3 billion) over five years to modernise its crumbling railways, making them safer, faster and more efficient.
In 2012 a government report said almost 15,000 people were killed every year on India’s railways, describing the deaths as an annual “massacre”.