Jhargram (West Bengal), May 28 (IANS) At least 76 people were killed and about 200 injured Friday after the engine and 13 coaches of a Mumbai-bound train derailed and rolled over following Maoist sabotage and were hit by a freight train in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district.
As many of the wounded battled for life in hospitals, officials and doctors warned that the death toll will rise in the accident that occurred at 1.30 a.m. in an area where security forces have cracked down on Maoists.
More than 16 hours after the tragedy, soldiers from a nearby cantonment and railway officials were still frantically trying to take bodies out of two coaches that got badly mangled after being smashed by the goods train. Rescuers used gas cutters to rip apart the coaches.
The Howrah-Kurla Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express went off the tracks after suspected Maoists removed 1.5 feet of rail track, rudely shaking the hundreds of sleeping passengers. Five coaches fell on a parallel track.
As ill luck would have it, even before the trapped passengers could realize what had happened, a speeding goods train coming from the opposite direction rammed into the coaches, crushing some of them.
It was the third worst train accident this year blamed on Maoist guerrillas and the worst bout of killings blamed on the rebels since they massacred 76 security personnel in Chhattisgarh April 6.
‘It’s an act of sabotage,’ West Bengal Home Secretary Samar Ghosh said in Kolkata, 155 km from the disaster site. ‘There are enough indications of that.’ Speaking in the evening, Chief Secretary Ardhendu Sen put the death toll at 76.
Injured passengers screamed in pain even as they struggled to scramble out of the toppled coaches. Many, shaken and bleeding, searched for family members in the darkness. The incident took place in a rural area, between two small railway stations near Jhargram town.
As it happens in most train accidents, the first to come to the rescue of the victims were villagers who pulled out the first of the wounded men and women from the coaches.
‘We heard a loud, screeching noise of the train braking and the coaches derailing,’ said a male passenger who survived the ordeal.
‘They are all dead,’ a middle-aged man kept moaning. He had boarded the train with his family just hours before the tragedy.
‘Mera bachche ka inteqal ho gaya (my child is no more),’ wailed a young mother, sitting on a platform at the Sardiha station nearby.
Once rescue efforts began in real earnest, the Indian Air Force pressed helicopters to circle overhead.
West Bengal officials said the Criminal Investigation Department would probe ‘all aspects of the incident’. Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee said at the site that ‘it is a bomb blast case’.
Initial reports did say that a loud blast had preceded the derailment. But police did not find any explosives on the tracks.
West Bengal Director General of Police Bhupinder Singh said a portion of the track as well as fish plates were found removed.
He said police found two posters put out by the Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities at the site, claiming responsibility for the sabotage.
The injured have been admitted to two hospitals in Kharagpur and one in Midnapore town.
This is the ninth major strike attributed to the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) this year.
‘It appears to be a case of sabotage where a portion of the railway track was removed. Whether explosives were used is not yet clear,’ Home Minister P. Chidambaram said earlier in a statement.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced Rs.200,000 as compensation for those killed and Rs.50,000 for the seriously injured. Banerjee declared Rs.500,000 to each family of the killed and a job for a family member.
The accident took place despite the railways sounding a red alert in five states — Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal — in the wake of a ‘black week’ being observed by Maoists since Thursday midnight against a joint crackdown by central and state security forces.