Worst-ever trains collision at Balasore claims 261 lives, injuries to to 900, high-level probe ordered

Balasore/Bhubaneswar: The death toll in the tragic triple-train collision near Bahanaga Bazar railway station in Odisha’s Balasore district climbed up to 288 on Saturday as rescue teams recovered more bodies that were trapped inside the ill-fated trains.

The Indian army has also been pressed into service as several passengers are still feared trapped. The casualty figures may rise further.

Large cranes and bulldozers tried on Saturday to lift the last remaining coach that rescuers have not reached yet among the strewn and mangled wreckage of three trains that rammed into each other in rapid sequence in Odisha’s Balasore district, officials said. The accident on Friday night killed at least 261 people and injured nearly 1,000 in one of the worst railway tragedies of the country.

The Indian Railways has ordered a high-level probe to ascertain the cause of the accident.

Gas cutters were used to extricate the bodies from under the derailed coaches. From a vantage point high above the ground, the accident site looked like as if a powerful whirlwind had thrown the coaches on top of each other.

Closer to the ground, bloodied and disfigured bodies laid enmeshed with each other, creating a grotesque sight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting to review the situation and was headed for the accident site and also the Cuttack hospital where many injured are being treated, officials said.

Home Minister Amit Shah and senior government officials attended the meeting.

The rescue operation is continuing with one coach posing a huge challenge, according to the latest official update that put the casualties at 261 and the number of injured at around 1,000.

“Only one bogie is left, which is severely damaged. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and the Fire Service are still working to cut the bogie and recover the living or the dead,” Odisha Chief Secretary P K Jena told reporters.

Around 200 ambulances, 50 buses and 45 mobile health units, besides 1,200 personnel, are working at the accident site, with officials saying the tragedy was compounded due to multiple tracks passing through an embanked area.

Army columns, including engineering and medical personnel, have been rushed to the accident site from its installations at Barrackpore and Panagarh in West Bengal. Two Mi-17 helicopters were deployed to evacuate the injured passengers, a defence official said on Saturday.

The crash occurred near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore, about 250 kilometres south of Kolkata and 170 kilometres north of Bhubaneswar, around 7 pm on Friday, prompting the railway ministry to order a probe.

The probe will be headed by the commissioner of railway safety, South Eastern Circle, officials said.

“A M Chowdhary, CRS, SE Circle, will inquire into the accident,” a spokesperson of the Indian Railways said.

The national transporter has also said anti-train collision system “Kavach” was not available on the route. While it is not clear what caused the crash, sources hinted at a possible signalling failure.

“The rescue operation has been completed. Now, we are starting the restoration work. Kavach was not available on this route,” Amitabh Sharma, a spokesperson for the Indian Railways, said.

Kavach alerts when a loco pilot jumps a signal (Signal Passed at Danger — SPAD), which is the leading cause of train collisions. The system can alert the loco pilot, take control of the brakes and bring the train to a halt automatically when it notices another train on the same line within a prescribed distance.

The Opposition condoled the loss of lives and slammed the government for the tragedy.

The Congress said the “horrendous” accident reinforces why safety should always be the foremost priority in the functioning of the railway network and asserted that there are many legitimate questions that need to be raised.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati also expressed grief at the loss of lives and sought a time-bound inquiry into the incident.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel assured his Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik of all possible assistance. Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann and his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar also offered their condolences.

The pile up occurred in a matter of just a few minutes.

The 12841 Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express derailed at Bahanaga Bazar between the Balasore and Soro stations at around 7 pm, according to South Eastern Railway officials.

Soon after, the 12864 Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express derailed at the same site.

Some coaches of the Coromandel Express fell on top of a stationary goods train in an adjacent railway track.

Sharma told PTI Video that the Coromandel Express derailed first and 10-12 of its coaches fell on the line on which the Bengaluru-Howrah Express was travelling, forcing it to jump off the tracks.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw reached the site in the morning as did Odisha Chief Minister Patnaik and his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee.

The railways has announced an ex-gratia amount of Rs 10 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh for those grievously injured and Rs 50,000 for those with minor injuries.

Modi has announced an additional ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for the injured from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

The railway tracks were almost destroyed at the spot as mangled coaches laid strewn all over, with some having mounted on another, while a few coaches overturned due to the impact.

Locals said they heard consecutive loud sounds, following which they rushed to the spot and found the derailed coaches.

“The local people really went out on a limb to help us…. They not only helped pull out people but retrieved our luggage and got us water,” Rupam Banerjee, one of the passengers, told reporters.

The Balasore district hospital looked like a war zone with the injured lying on stretchers on the corridor and the wards struggling to accommodate all the patients.

Harried medical staff were seen trying to bring succour to the patients, many of whom are from states other than Odisha and had difficulties in communicating. In all, 526 accident victims have been admitted to the hospital.

More than 2,000 people gathered at the Balasore Medical College and Hospital at night to help the injured and many of them donated blood, officials said.

The morgue at the hospital was a pile of white-shrouded bodies, many of those not identified as relatives are yet to reach the town with many trains cancelled or delayed due to the accident on a major railway trunk route.

Doctors from AIIMS-Bhubaneswar have been dispatched to Balasore and Cuttack to assist in the relief operations, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said.

Patnaik declared a daylong state mourning on Saturday.

The Tamil Nadu government has made arrangements to ensure the return of the stranded and injured passengers to the southern state, and a high-level delegation comprising ministers and officials has been sent to coordinate the rescue-and-relief activities at the site, Chief Minister M K Stalin said.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has deputed a team led by Labour Minister Santosh Lad to ensure the safety of the people from the state in the aftermath of the accident.

Two trains carrying around 1,200 passengers of the trains involved in the gruesome accident will arrive at Howrah on Saturday, a South Eastern Railway official said.

While one of the trains is carrying 1,000 passengers, another is on its way from Balasore to Howrah with around 200 passengers, he added.