Amritsar: In a terrible disaster, 58 people watching the burning of a Ravan effigy from a railway track were crushed to death by a speeding train here in Punjab on Friday, triggering anger in the area and nationwide outrage.
Nearly 72 others were injured, many of them critical. They were rushed to government hospitals in the area for treatment.
A large number of some 700 people were watching the huge Ravan effigy in flames amid exploding crackers while on the tracks at Joda Phatak near Dhobi Ghat within the city when the Jalandhar-Amritsar DMU passenger train coming to Amritsar from Hoshiarpur came hurtling down around 7 p.m.
It took just about 10-15 seconds for the train to pass -- and leave behind a heap of crushed and dismembered bodies. People standing on the tracks did not realise that the train was approaching fast due to the noise of the firecrackers during the burning effigy.
Bodies of the victims, most of which were dismembered, were being handed over to affected families on Saturday for performing their last rights.
Video clips posted on the social media showed some people who had apparently seen the approaching train trying to run away from the site. A few of them were also mowed down.
Wails and cries filled the air as people frantically looked for their near and dear ones. Severed bodies, including those of children, were lying at the accident site hours after the incident with angry people not allowing authorities to remove them.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Friday ordered a probe into the train disaster. The government said it will set up a crisis management group to monitor relief and rehabilitation efforts. The group is led by Health Minister Brahm Mohindra, with Revenue Minister Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria and Technical Education Minister Charanjit Singh Channi as members.
The team has rushed to the accident site to assess and tackle the situation, an official statement said.
Relief and rehabilitation efforts have been mounted by the state government on a war footing. The injured are undergoing emergency treatment in various government and private hospitals across Amritsar.
Amritsar Police Commissioner S.S. Srivastava told the media that the whole situation was being assessed by the police after completion of rescue work late on Friday. Punjab Police officials began the investigation early on Saturday into the man-made disaster.
The role of train driver, railway officials and local authorities, who gave permission for holding of the event close to the railway tracks, is being probed, police officials said.
Scores of people were roaming on the railway tracks on Saturday morning to see the accident spot, with the police and local authorities failing to even cordon off the area.
Most of the dead and injured were standing on the railway tracks near the ground where the Ravana effigy was being burnt. Eyewitnesses said the victims were either watching the burning of Ravana or were recording the event on their mobile. Srivastava said that the toll could go up.
The state government has declared a state mourning on Saturday. All offices and educational institutions will remain closed as a mark of respect to those dying in the train tragedy.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who announced an immediate compensation of Rs 5 lakh each for the families of victims, is scheduled to visit Amritsar on Saturday.
Former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi slammed the Railways for the train tragedy, saying that it should take the blame and try to fix its system.
"Take the blame so that they (faults) can be rectified. Even if it requires suspending of the rail services, do so. The fact is, we all collectively have used railways for our political end," Trivedi told a TV channel. Criticising the functioning of the Railways, he said that the entire system exists just to "please the minister" and that several reports on the Railways' structural reforms are "gathering dust".
Former MLA Navjot Kaur Sidhu who was the chief guest at the celebrations, also blamed the railway authorities for not issuing directions regarding movement of trains near the tracks. "We burnt the Ravan effigies at six places today. Most of them were near the railway track. They (railway authorities) should have at least issued directions to slow down the speed of the train. Such a big mistake," Sidhu told a media channel from a hospital where the injured were taken.
Some people blamed Kaur saying her late arrival delayed the burning of the effigy by more than half an hour. She left, she said, just before the incident and got a call about the tragedy only 15 minutes after her leaving the place. The wife of cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu also cautioned people against politicising the issue saying those who are doing it "should be ashamed".
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed condolences over the horrific tragedy.
"Extremely saddened by the accident in Amritsar. The tragedy is heart-wrenching... I pray that the injured recover quickly," Modi said.
The Prime Minister announced Rs 2 lakh compensation to the families of the dead and Rs 50,000 to the injured.
Similar messages came from the Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Delhi. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal cancelled all his engagements in the US and was flying back to India.