At least 288 people were killed and hundreds injured after three trains were involved in India’s deadliest rail accident in two decades, with families still searching for their loved ones and an investigation into the cause under way.
The accident on Friday in eastern Odisha state’s Balasore district left at least 803 people injured, the South Eastern Railway said on Saturday.
The Odisha government said that 1,175 people were admitted to various hospitals. While 793 had been discharged after treatment, 380 people remained and were listed as stable, while two were in critical condition.
More than 24 hours after the crash, the mammoth search-and-rescue effort was declared over, but the Railways Ministry said that more than 1,000 personnel remained on-site to remove the mangled coaches and clear and restore the tracks so that rail operations could resume.
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Sudhanshu Sarangi, the director general of Odisha’s fire services, said the death toll was expected to rise further, potentially approaching 380, according to the AFP news agency.
Pradeep Jena, the state’s top civil servant, said, “The challenge now is identifying the bodies. Wherever the relatives are able to provide evidence, the bodies are handed over after autopsies. If not identified, maybe we have to go for a DNA test and other protocols.”
The collision occurred at about 7pm (13:30 GMT) on Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express, running from Bengaluru to Howrah, West Bengal, collided with the Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata to Chennai. Authorities have provided conflicting accounts on which train derailed first to become entangled with the other and have yet to make any statements about possible causes.
Debabrata Mohanty, an editor at the Hindustan Times, told Al Jazeera that four livestock wagons on the train that left from Kolkata went off the track shortly before 7pm. “No one knows how it happened, but it was travelling at around 100km/h [62mph],” he said.
Shortly after, the train coming from Bengaluru crashed into two of the derailed rail coaches.
“But most of the casualties happened because this one particular train got derailed, not because of the two trains colliding,” Mohanty added.
One survivor told of his nightmare as he was jolted awake when the carriage he was sleeping in overturned.
“My sleep broke and 10-15 people fell on top of me,” he told reporters, as he sat on the ground in the dark, steps away from the crash site. “I hurt my hand and neck … I saw someone had lost their hand, someone had lost their leg … I got out of there and since then, I have been sitting here.”
Hundreds of fire department personnel, police officers, doctors and sniffer dogs worked through the night, while National Disaster Response Force teams were rushed to the site as well as army soldiers, air force helicopters and ambulances.
Video footage showed rescuers climbing on one of the mangled trains to find survivors, while passengers called for help and sobbed next to the wreckage.
Several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, with most of them blamed on human error or outdated signalling equipment. More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India each day, travelling on 64,000km (40,000 miles) of track.
The details of Friday’s crash were not immediately clear, nor was the sequence of events.
Sudhanshu Mani, a former Indian Railways general manager, told Al Jazeera that investments had gone into track maintenance and other safety measures in recent years.
“Today’s accident is very unfortunate,” Mani said, adding that the casualties would be high due to the number of people on board the trains.
“But the number of accidents has come down and there are projects on the way to improve the safety even more,” he said.
There was no official confirmation of the total number of passengers on the trains.
The worst disasters in recent years include one in October 2018, when a train ran over a crowd watching fireworks during a religious festival on the outskirts of Amritsar, a city in northern Punjab state, killing at least 60 people and injuring dozens more.
At least 146 people died in November 2016, when a passenger train travelling between the cities of Indore and Patna slid off the tracks. More than 200 people were injured.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to the crash site on Saturday and later visited a hospital where the injured were admitted, saying “no one responsible” for the train crash would be spared.
“Took stock of the situation at the site of the tragedy in Odisha. Words can’t capture my deep sorrow,” Modi subsequently tweeted.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who also visited the site, had earlier announced compensation of about one million rupees ($12,000) to the families of those killed, $2,400 for those who had suffered “grievous” injuries, and $600 for people with “minor” injuries.
The opposition criticised the government and called for Vaishnaw to resign.