Twenty-six passengers of the Bangalore-Nanded Express bound for Nanded were charred to death and 15 were injured when a fire suspected to have caused by electrical short circuit in an AC compartment gutted a bogey, at this town near Puttaparthi on Saturday.
The disaster, the second worst for Indian railways this year, could have led to a higher toll of life had the loco pilot not had the presence of mind to detach the compartment as soon as the fire sparked off. That action saved as many as 38 of the 64 passengers in the ill-fated compartment escape with minor injuries and prevented a bigger conflagration as the fire could have spread to other compartments.
The passengers in compartment B1 were in deep sleep when the fire was noticed at around 3.15am, soon after the train passed Puttaparthi. Terrified, some of the passengers pulled the chains to stop the train. But the train did not stop immediately, and came to a halt five minutes later near Kothacheruvu.
By 3.30am, the compartment was in flames, killing 26 of the passengers who included 12 women and two children. The bodies were so charred that only nine of the victims have been identified.
The passengers who paid a premium to travel by AC comform found the compartment a death trap. The unbreakable double glass windows allowed no escape and most died of suffocation even before the flames consumed them.
At Kothacheruvu station fire engines went into action, and rescue operations were put into motion, but the fire could be put out only by 5 am, a 100 minutes after the fire began.Fire engines were pressed into action. Rescuers found charred bodies and gutted innards of the compartments when they entered B1.
Three hours after the conflagration began, at 6.45am, the train left it on its onward journey.
Survivors not wishing journey further were assisted to return to Bangalore and Belgaum by two buses, while those intending to proceed to Nanded were sent by train from Dharmavaram.
Railway authorities, after preliminary investigations, have concluded that the fire was caused by a short circuit. The obvious questions of lack of safety mechanism on trains, particularly airconditions compartments, such as sprinklers and fire extinguishers were asked at briefings by officials, but the latter had no answer.
Railway Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge, who visited the spot about 12 hours after the incident, said a committee would be constituted by the Railway Board to inquire into circumstances leading to the disaster. Another independent unit under the civil aviation ministry will probe the accident.
Kharge announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the kin of the dead, and Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000 respectively for those seriously injured and those with lesser injuries. He also admitted that the railways had been unable to check passengers from carrying liquor and smoking on trains, and said the commissioner for Railway Safety and the Railway Board, would draft an action plan in this regard.
Union Minister of State for Railways Kotla Jayasuryaprakash Reddy who also visited the accident spot said the Railways would bear the cost of the treatment too.