Balasore, Odisha — Mohammad Afzal survived one of the worst train accidents in India’s history, but remained in a state of high anxiety, unable to locate his friend who was in the same coach.
Afzal, 19, has been going from one hospital to the next in the eastern state of Odisha, where the disaster took place on Friday, to track down his friend Mohmmad Mazhar, also 19, who had boarded the train with him.
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Mazhar’s family, including his parents, uncles and aunts, from Kolkata in the neighbouring state of West Bengal, almost 200 kilometres (124.3 miles) from the accident site, have launched a frantic search.
But Mazhar’s whereabouts were unknown even more than 20 hours after the three-train pileup, as the death toll continued to rise.
“We boarded the general compartment of the train. The coach was completely packed. We had no place to sit, so we were standing,” Afzal said.
“Thirty minutes after boarding the train, the accident happened. We could feel the compartment overturn at least thrice,” he added.
While he could pull himself out of the carriage, he could not find Mazhar.
“I looked for him for at least four hours. But there was no sign of him. I will be at peace only after I find him,” he told Al Jazeera.
At least 288 people have died and more than 800 passengers were injured, according to the latest update from South Eastern Railway.
Afzal’s aunt Amna Begum is holding on to hope.
“We just want to know if he is alive. We arrived here immediately after we heard the news. It’s been almost a day, but we have no news of him,” she said.
Those who survived are calling it their second birth. Manoranjan Malik, 42, has a fractured left leg. He was pulled out of the mangled remains of the train compartment more than 12 hours after the accident.
“I remember there was a huge crackling sound. My head hit a spot and then I don’t remember anything.
“I lost consciousness. The next thing I remember is someone was pulling me out. When I looked at the open sky, I couldn’t understand where I was,” Malik said.
“This feels like a second lease of life,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Followed the screams’
While several details of the accident and its cause are still unclear, officials have said that it involved three trains – two express passenger trains and one goods train.
It took place near Bahanaga Bazaar station in the district of Balasore, which is about 250km (155 miles) south of Kolkata and 170km (106 miles) north of Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital.
A resident of Bahanaga, who lives about 200 metres (218 yards) from the crash site, said that it was all over within minutes.
“We heard a loud sound, something we had never heard before. It was gradual, not a single sound,” said Ganbhyan Behera.
“When we rushed to the spot, nothing was visible – but we could hear screams. We followed the screams and tried to rescue as many people as we could,” he added.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw promised a thorough investigation even as the opposition called for his resignation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the crash site on Saturday to check on the rescue efforts and also looked in on hospitalised survivors.
While the rescue operation has ended and the area has been cleared of both the living and the dead, the authorities have said that one of the biggest challenges ahead is identifying the bodies – and also reuniting people like Afzal with their friends and family.