India is reeling from its most catastrophic train disaster in over twenty years that has, to date, claimed 288 lives, according to officials on Saturday. The preliminary findings cite signal malfunction as the cause of the tragedy, which saw a passenger train derail and crash into another.
Friday's tragic accident occurred in the Balasore district of the eastern Odisha state when one of the trains collided with a stationary freight train, causing significant damage and injuring 803. K. S. Anand, the Chief Public Relations Officer of the South Eastern Railway, confirmed the escalating death toll.
The rescue mission is ongoing with several bodies still entangled within the wreckage, raising the fear of an increased death toll, a Reuters correspondent noted. According to Anand, early reports suggest that a signal error is to blame for the catastrophe.
"The Coromandel Express was designated to continue on the mainline. However, due to a miscommunication, it was directed onto the loop line and collided with a goods train already stationed there. This resulted in the coaches tumbling onto the adjacent tracks, leading to the derailment of the Howrah Superfast Express," Anand explained.
Eyewitness and survivor Anubha Das recounts a horrifying scene that will haunt him forever. "A bloodbath on the tracks, families perished, and limbless bodies," he described.
Visuals from the incident revealed the aftermath - destroyed rail cars and damaged tracks. Rescue workers were seen scrambling through the wreckage to save trapped passengers and rush them to nearby hospitals.
The site of a local school turned into a temporary morgue, with bodies lined up on its blood-soaked floor, covered with white sheets and placed in chained bags. Police personnel aided relatives in identifying their loved ones.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the site, overseeing the rescue operations and assessing the damage. He also visited survivors in hospitals. "Words fail to convey my profound grief. We pledge to extend all necessary assistance to those affected," Modi expressed.
A rescue worker described the heartrending scene marked by the chilling cries of the injured and the bereaved. "It was a terrifying, gut-wrenching sight," he said.
Families of the deceased will receive compensation of 1 million rupees ($12,000), and those injured will receive between 50,000 to 200,000 rupees, according to Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. Additional aid has been announced by some state governments.
Vaishnaw described the incident as a "major, tragic accident," stating, "Our primary focus is on the ongoing rescue and relief operation, ensuring the injured receive the best possible care."
One of the survivors recounted to NDTV news the horrific scene, "I woke up to the noise of the train derailing... I saw several dismembered bodies."
The fatal incident unfolded on Friday around 7 p.m. (1330 GMT), when the Howrah Superfast Express collided with the Coromandel Express.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has introduced high-speed trains in a bid to modernize the network. However, critics argue that safety and infrastructure upgrade have been overlooked. This latest accident is seen as a significant setback to Modi's rail revamp plans.
International leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and French President Emmanuel Macron, have extended their condolences over the tragic incident.