Indian villagers carry an injured person along a rail track after a train… (Associated Press )
NEW DELHI -- At least 28 people were killed Monday when an express train at a remote station in northern India plowed into people crossing the tracks, according to witnesses, officials and local media.
The accident prompted an angry crowd to attack the station and set fire to two trains.
The victims, mostly area residents heading for a nearby temple, had just gotten off a local train at Dhamara Ghat station in northern Bihar state when they were hit by the express train on a parallel track about 8:30 a.m.
In addition to the 28 confirmed dead, many were grievously injured, said Madhuresh Kumar, general manager of the East Central Railway, speaking by telephone from the Dhamara Ghat station. “The station is completely damaged,” he added.
The express train passing through Dhamara Ghat was traveling about 50 miles per hour when it struck the pedestrians, state railways minister Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury told reporters. The train stopped several hundred yards down the track.
“The driver ran away,” said Vinod Karna, a reporter with Dainik Jagran, a local Hindi-language newspaper.
But while some questioned the driver's role, Arunendra Kumar, chairman of the Railway Board (and not related to Madhuresh Kumar), told a news conference in New Delhi that pedestrians were at fault for “trespassing” on railway property.
Several of those injured were in critical condition, he added, so the death toll could climb further. A preliminary investigation has been ordered, he said.
Video footage showed a train parked at a small platform enveloped in thick black smoke with flames shooting from its windows. Mutilated bodies were laid out near the tracks, some wearing the saffron robes of Hindu pilgrims, surrounded by onlookers.
Police said they were unable to send more security to the remote site, which was difficult to reach by road. The railway tried to send doctors and nurses by train, Chowdhury said, but were deterred by blocked tracks and a fear they might be attacked.
Sunil Kumar, 26, a local farmer who witnessed the accident, said thousands of people from surrounding villages come to nearby Katyani Sthan temple to honor of the Hindu god Lord Shiva every Monday and Friday. There’s no proper road or overpass, he said, so people have no choice but to cross the tracks.
As a large crowd crossed the track Monday, the express train approached without blowing its whistle, he said.
“It came on a track between two stationary trains parked on platforms one and two, so they couldn’t see what was coming and had no way to get out of the way,” he said. “The driver hit the devotees from behind and, because he was going so fast, they were dragged 100 to 200 yards before getting tossed alongside the tracks.”
The assembled crowd, reinforced by people from nearby villages, grew increasingly angry and started shouting, Sunil Kumar said, before setting fire to the express train and the local train most pilgrims had arrived on.
As the flames intensified, Sunil Kumar said he and several other men pulled the bodies away from the burning train so they wouldn’t be charred, which would’ve hampered identification.
“I pulled a dead body away from the train of a mother holding her child, both dead,” he said. “The sight was terrible.”
India's vast state-owned railway operates some 9,000 passenger trains daily carrying about 18 million passengers. But the British-built system is aging, overburdened and in need of maintenance. A government safety panel reported last year that 15,000 people die in railway accidents each year, including many slum dwellers living right along the tracks, with tens of thousands maimed.
Railway official Madhuresh Kumar said two locomotives and 22 carriages were torched Monday. Mobs in India frequently attack government officials, burn trains and destroy property after an accident, in a nation where corruption is endemic and legal cases can drag on for years. Last September, a freight train was set on fire by angry locals after it rammed into a truck, killing eight.
On Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed shock in a statement at the loss of life and appealed for calm so relief and rescue operations could be carried out “without any hindrance."
Syrian Palestinians pack Lebanon refugee camp
Mexican drug lord's release reopens wounds for victims' relatives
Former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak may be freed from jail soon
Tanvi Sharma in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.