Rescue operation underway following an accident involving Coromandel Express, Bengaluru-Howrah Express and a goods train, in Balasore district, Saturday, June 3, 2023. At least 261 people were killed and over 900 others suffered injuries, according to officials | Photo: PTI
Balasore/Bhubaneswar: Investigators were on Saturday looking into any human error, signal failure and other possible causes behind the three-train crash in Odisha's Balasore district as officials submitted a preliminary inquiry report into the worst rail accident in India in nearly three decades that left at least 288 people dead and over 1,100 injured.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the accident site and was briefed by Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw as well as officers of the disaster management teams. He also met some of the injured in the hospital.
"I do not have words to express my pain... No one would be spared and strong action would be taken against those found guilty. Instructions have been given to ensure proper and speedy investigation of the tragedy," Modi said, adding that more focus will be given to the security of rail passengers.
The crash involving Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express and Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express, which were carrying around 2,000 passengers, and a goods train occurred around 7 PM on Friday near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore, about 250 km south of Kolkata and 170 km north of Bhubaneswar.
Seventeen coaches were derailed and severely damaged in the accident, trapping hundreds of passengers. Both passenger trains were at a high speed and it has been cited by experts as one of the main reasons for the high number of casualties.
From a vantage point high above the ground, the disaster site looked as if a powerful whirlwind had thrown the coaches like toys on top of each other. Closer to the ground, bloodied, disfigured bodies and dismembered body parts lay enmeshed, creating a grotesque sight.
Large cranes were deployed to move the wreckage and gas cutters were used to extricate the bodies from the mangled, toppled coaches.
The rescue operation was wrapped up Saturday afternoon and restoration work started. The injured were admitted to four hospitals.
Preliminary investigations have revealed that a signal was given to Coromandel Express to enter the main line but it was taken off and the train entered the loop line, where it crashed into a goods train parked there.
The Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express which was coming at high speed crashed into the coaches of Coromandel Express that had scattered on the adjacent track.
Citing reports till Saturday evening, officials said 288 people were killed in the accident.
As many as 1,175 people were admitted at various hospitals, including private ones, out of which 793 have been released and 382 were undergoing treatment, Odisha government officials said at around 8 PM Saturday.
All except two patients are stable, they said.
Shocked survivors recalled their brush with death, while families in several states including West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Odisha underwent a painful wait to know the fate of their loved ones.
"The train was running at a high speed. Around 7 PM, a loud sound was heard and it was chaos after that. I fell on the floor from the upper berth. It was ghastly, many people with grave injuries were lying around," Mizan Ul Haq, a resident of Bardhaman who was in a coach at the rear of the Howrah Superfast Express train, told PTI.
Another Bardhaman resident, a carpenter who works in Bengaluru, said he was injured in the chest, feet and head when the coach in which he was travelling turned turtle. "We had to break open the windows and jump out of the compartment to save ourselves," he said, adding he saw many bodies after the accident.
The unreserved compartments were packed, carrying mostly migrant workers to Tamil Nadu or Kerala, according to survivors.
Nityam Ray, a resident of Bhomrail village in West Bengal's Malda district, was also killed in the accident. He was travelling on the Coromandel Express, his family said.
Ray, 30, called his wife moments after he boarded the train from the Shalimar station in Howrah district. "That was the last time I spoke to him," she said.
The Balasore district hospital and Soro hospital looked like a war zone as the injured were rushed in.
More than 2,000 people gathered at the Balasore Medical College and Hospital at night to help the injured and many of them donated blood, officials said.
The morgue at the hospital was overflowing with shrouded bodies and was thronged by distraught relatives of passengers.
As the nation mourned the massive tragedy, several states and parties cancelled their programmes and condolences poured in from across the world.
Expressing shock and grief at the tragic train accident, opposition leaders stressed the importance of prioritising the safety of passengers by railways, while there were also demands to fix accountability and for the resignation of Railway Minister Vaishnaw.
While questions were raised on why the anti-train collision system "Kavach" did not work, the railways said it was not available on the route.
High-level probe ordered
The national transporter has initiated a high-level probe into the train that will be headed by the commissioner of railway safety, South Eastern Circle, officials said.
While sources had earlier said a signalling failure could be the reason behind the crash, railway officials said it is not yet clear if Coromandel Express entered the loop line and hit the stationary goods train or it first derailed and then hit the parked train after entering the loop line.
The preliminary inquiry report, a copy of which is with PTI, said the signal "was given and taken off for the up main line for train number 12841 but the train entered the up loop line and dashed with the goods train which was on the loopline and derailed".
"In the meantime, (train number) 12864 passed through the down main line and two coaches of it derailed and capsized."
The loop lines of the Indian Railways are constructed in a station area -- in this case, the Bahanagar Bazar station -- to accommodate more trains to ease out the operations. The loop lines are generally 750 metres in length to accommodate full-length goods train with multiple engines.
While Coromandel Express was at a speed of 128 kmph, Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express was running at a speed of 116 kmph. The report has been submitted to the Railway Board, sources said.
These trains generally run up to a maximum speed of 130 kmph.
"A M Chowdhary, CRS, SE Circle, will inquire into the accident," a spokesperson of the Indian Railways said.
None of the authorities has so far talked about any possibility of sabotage.
"The rescue operation has been completed. Now, we are starting the restoration work. Kavach was not available on this route," Indian Railways Spokesperson Amitabh Sharma said.
The railway is in the process of installing "Kavach", an anti-train collision system, across its network.
Kavach alerts when a loco pilot jumps a signal (Signal Passed at Danger -- SPAD), which is the leading cause of train collisions. The system can alert the loco pilot, take control of the brakes and bring the train to a halt automatically when it notices another train on the same line within a prescribed distance.
Rescue teams mobilised
Around 1,200 personnel, 200 ambulances, 50 buses, and 45 mobile health units worked at the accident site, with officials saying the tragedy was compounded due to multiple tracks passing through an embanked area.
Army columns, including engineering and medical personnel, were rushed from Barrackpore and Panagarh in West Bengal. Two Mi-17 helicopters were deployed to evacuate the injured passengers, a defence official said on Saturday.
The engine drivers and guards of two passenger trains were injured and were being treated in different hospitals, a railway official said.
The engine driver and the guard of the goods trains escaped unhurt, the official added.
Policemen and locals have been volunteering to donate blood at Balasore district hospital and other hospitals through the night, said officials. More than 2,000 people gathered at the Balasore Medical College and Hospital in the night to help the injured, and many also donated blood, officials said.
Many bodies at the morgue were yet to be identified as relatives are yet to make their way to the town with many train services cancelled or delayed due to the accident on a major railway trunk route.
The injured have been rushed to Balasore, Soro, Bhadrak, Jajpur Hospital and SCB Medical College in Cuttack.
"There were injured people having big cuts on their faces and bodies and fractures on their limbs and severed body parts. We gave them water and bedsheets from our coaches to be made into make-shift bandages to wrap around their wounds so that the bleeding would stop," Anubhav Das, a Ph.D. scholar who was on the Coromandel Express on his way back home to Cuttack, said.
Doctors from AIIMS-Bhubaneswar have been dispatched to Balasore and Cuttack in Odisha to assist in the relief operations at the train accident site, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said.
"Two teams of doctors from AIIMS-Bhubaneswar have been dispatched for Balasore and Cuttack to assist in relief operations at the rail accident site in Odisha," Mandaviya said on Twitter.
"We are providing all required help and medical assistance to the victims of the tragic train accident to save precious lives," he added.
Leaders visit accident site, Compensation announced
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw reached the accident site early this morning and announced a high-level probe into the incident. Hours later, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik visited the spot to take stock of the situation. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee flew to the accident site.
“This is the biggest train accident of this century and a proper investigation must be conducted. "Something must be behind this. The truth must come out. Why didn't the anti-collision system work?" Banerjee, who is a former railway minister, said
Later, Prime Minister Modi visited the accident site and took stock of relief operations. He was accompanied by Vaishnaw and Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan. The prime minister also met the victims at Balasore Hospital.
Noting that this train accident will be a lesson, he said the government will further stress on the safety of the passengers.
The prime minister said that it was not possible to bring back those killed in the incident, but the government stands solidly behind their families.
"No stone will be left unturned to provide all possible medical help to those injured," Modi said.
He lauded the efforts of the Odisha government in the rescue and relief operations, and commended the locals who turned up in large numbers for blood donation, and to help those injured.
The railways have announced an ex-gratia amount of Rs 10 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh for those grievously injured and Rs 50,000 for those with minor injuries.
Modi has announced an additional ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for the injured from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund. Other states too have announced assistance.
The opposition Congress said the "horrendous" train accident in Odisha reinforces why safety should always be the foremost priority in the functioning of the rail network.
In a statement, Kharge said, "At this moment of a grave national tragedy on account of the terrible train disaster in Odisha, I have instructed the entire Congress party organisation to extend all possible help."
"We have many questions to ask of the prime minister and the railway minister but those can wait since the immediate task is of rescue and relief," Kharge said.
On June 6, 1981, India recorded its worst train accident in Bihar when a train fell into the river Bagmati while crossing a bridge, killing more than 750 people.
In August 1995, around 350 people were killed when two passenger trains collided in Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh.