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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 May, 2003, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Dozens die in Indian train blaze
The disaster scene near Ludhiana
Passengers threw children to safety through windows of burning coaches

At least 38 people have died in a fire on an express train in India's northern Punjab state.

The fire broke out in three coaches of the Golden Temple Express, which was travelling from Bombay (Mumbai) to the holy Sikh city of Amritsar.

Rescue workers have so far recovered 38 bodies, many reportedly women and children, and the authorities say a number of passengers are still missing.

Rail officials say the toll is likely to rise.

India's prime minister and president have conveyed their condolences to the relatives of the bereaved.

President APJ Abdul Kalam expressed his "shock and grief" at the loss of life.

Anguished relatives were seen searching for loved ones in a pile of bodies littering the tracks. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.

The heat was so great that the roof above our heads was melting and the smoke was choking
AD Singh, passenger

Passengers stuck in the burning carriages had thrown children out of the windows of the still-running train in a desperate attempt to save their lives.

Rescuers and villagers took nearly three hours to extinguish the flames, police said.

"I have lost my wife and both my sons," said an Indian army soldier, MK Shahji, weeping beside their shrouded bodies.

Eleven children were reported to be among the dead and at least another 13 people were injured.

SN Tiwari, chief surgeon of the state-run hospital in nearby Ludhiana, said many of the survivors had serious injuries.

It is believed that 35 of the dead were pulled from a single economy-class coach.

Inquiry

It is still unclear what caused the fire, which started at the rear of the 15-coach Golden Temple Express, the new name for what many Indians still call the Frontier Mail.

Map

MY Siddiqui, a railway spokesman, told the BBC's World Today programme: "There is no evidence to suggest sabotage. It could have been due to an inflammable object exploding."

Rail Minister Nitish Kumar expressed "profound grief" and said he was flying to the site to launch a comprehensive inquiry.

Rail officials were arranging for a special train to ferry relatives of those killed and injured to the site to collect the bodies and belongings.

Door 'jammed'

The fire started at 0345 on Thursday (2215 GMT Wednesday) after the express had left Ladawal, about 300 km (195 miles) north of Delhi

Most of the passengers were asleep when the fire broke out.

Officials say one of the exit doors of the worst-hit coach jammed because of heat from the fire.

Some eyewitnesses said another door was blocked with luggage.

TRACKS OF TEARS
Jan 2003: 18 are killed as two trains collide in Maharashtra
Dec 2002: Train derails south of Hyderabad, killing 20
Sept 2002: 118 die in Bihar when the Rajdhani Express goes off the tracks
Jun 2001: A train derails and plunges into a river in Kerala, killing 64
Aug 1999: 285 die when two trains collide north of Calcutta
Nov 1998: 211 die as the Frontier Mail and the Sealdah Express collide in the Punjab

Soldiers travelling on the train helped with the initial rescue effort.

Indian infantry sergeant AD Singh and six of his troopers risked their lives to drag out smoke-blinded passengers in pitch darkness from the carriage where the blaze originated.

"I pulled the chain and applied the emergency brakes and we brought out as many [passengers] as we could," Sergeant Singh told AFP.

"The heat was so great that the roof above our heads was melting and the smoke was choking," he said.

The train later continued towards Amritsar, after the burnt coaches had been detached.

India has one of the largest rail systems in the world, carrying 11 million people daily over more than 100,000 kilometres of track.

Much of the network still depends on outdated signalling equipment that is manually operated.

Last month, the state-run Indian Railways unveiled plans for a massive upgrade of tracks, bridges and track signals to bring down the high number of railway accidents.

In 1998, a previous Frontier Mail express crashed into three derailed cars of another train, killing 211 passengers.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava
"It's still not clear how the fire started"



SEE ALSO:
In pictures: India train disaster
15 May 03  |  Photo Gallery
Train fire relatives' anxious wait
15 May 03  |  South Asia
Indian police probe train derailment
24 Dec 02  |  South Asia
Indian train crash toll reaches 100
11 Sep 02  |  South Asia
India's antiquated railways
02 Dec 00  |  South Asia
Crammed onto an Indian train
07 Aug 99  |  From Our Own Correspondent


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