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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 13:01 GMT
Eyewitness: Egyptian train disaster
Rescue worker walks beside charred carriages
People were returning home for a Muslim festival
More than 370 people have died in Egypt's worst train disaster. Egyptian journalist Khaled Dawoud reports from the scene at Riqa el-Gharbeya.

In one charred carriage, four bodies - burnt beyond recognition - hung from the train's windows.

It was hell. It was like being in an oven

Passengers, trying to flee the flames, had found themselves trapped behind iron bars placed over the windows to prevent people jumping on the train in hope of a free ride.

One survivor, speaking from his hospital bed, said he saw mothers wrapping their young children in layers of clothing and throwing through them through the bars, in a desperate attempt to save their lives.


Most of the dead and injured were poor Egyptians travelling from the capital Cairo to celebrate the Muslim feast of eid al-adha (feast of the sacrifice) with their families in the towns and villages in southern Egypt.

The third-class train left Cairo at midnight on Tuesday, heading for Aswan, 900km (560 miles) south of the capital. Between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers were on board the 11 carriages.

Carriages were strewn with charred remains
Most bodies were burned beyond recognition
An hour into the journey, a fire broke out in one of the rear carriages. The cause is, as yet, unknown but officials suspect that one of the portable cookers used by passengers may have started the blaze.

Unaware that some carriages were ablaze, the driver carried on for almost 5km (three miles) at high speed before feeling the heat of the flames and hearing the passengers' screams.

At least 40 people were killed and some 75 were injured after they leapt from the speeding train.

Railway officials said that in an attempt to save lives, the driver stopped the train, separated the few carriages that were not on fire and drove them to the nearest station.

Trying to escape

Ambulances and fire-fighters rushed to the scene, but there was little they could do after strong flames turned the carriages into what another survivor described as a "closed oven".

"It was hell. It was like being in an oven," he told the state television station from his hospital bed. "We were trying to run or jump towards the windows and doors, but the train was so overcrowded, and many of us could not make it."

Rescue workers said they discovered the burnt bodies of passengers piled on top of each other behind the train's heavy metal doors.

Egyptian police by ruined carriages
Police have been out in force
Officials say it will be impossible to identify many of the victim's bodies, which later were laid along the rail track passing through the village of Riqa El-Gharbeya.

Most Egyptians would never have heard of the village if the train had not made its last stop there.

Some survivors say the remote location of the disaster meant that it took some time for the fire engines to reach the scene.


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expressed deep sadness over the heavy loss of lives.

He ordered an immediate investigation into the accident and dispatched his prime minister, Atef Obeid, to the scene.

The premier said the government will pay the family of each victim LE 3,000 ($650).

What is known in Egypt as the Saeed train - the Arabic name for Upper Egypt - takes 17 hours to complete the journey between Cairo and Aswan.

Unlike the air-conditioned, first-class trains used by tourists and wealthy Egyptians, the Saeed train is usually in very bad condition, with no proper toilets and mostly broken windows.

Passengers who cannot afford a first-class ticket cram themselves into every available space inside the carriages, including the baggage racks.

Officials say each carriage is designed to carry around 150 passengers, but the actual number is usually double that figure.

Railway accidents are not uncommon in Egypt, but this was the first time a train has caught fire, causing such a high death toll.

The BBC's Paul Wood
"The blaze swept from carriage to carriage"
The BBC's Richard Miron
"Passengers were forced to jump from the windows"
See also:

20 Feb 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Egypt's train disaster
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Survivors tell of Egyptian train horror
08 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country Profile: Egypt
05 Feb 02 | Business
Egypt calls for aid
24 Oct 01 | Middle East
14 children dead in Egypt bus plunge
20 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Factory fire kills 15 in Egypt
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Egypt's history of train disasters
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