Nellore (AP): A mystery fire broke out in a sleeper class coach of Chennai-bound Tamil Nadu Express early this morning, killing 32 passengers and injuring 25 others in one of worst mishaps in the region which Railway Minister Mukul Roy suggested could be due to sabotage.
It was an inferno on wheels as the superfast express train from Delhi to Chennai was travelling at a speed of over 100 km per hour when the tragedy struck the train a little after 4 AM.
The fire, suspected to have been caused by a short circuit in one of the toilets, claimed the lives of 19 men, six women and three children, who were fast asleep at the time of the accident.
It was first noticed by Nellore station manager at 4.15 AM and the train was immediately brought to a halt.
Giant flames leapt out of the ill-fated bogie and the fire could be controlled only at around 5.30 AM after two fire engines reached the spot in South Central railway in Andhra Pradesh, about 150 km from Chennai.
There were reports that the S-11 coach, which carried more than 70 passengers and had just became a burnt mass of steel, had a malfunctioning door that led to passengers rushing to the other end for escape. This could have also been the reason why there were more casualties, eyewitnesses said.
The number of dead was put at 32 by Additional DG Railway Police in Hyderabad V SK Kaumudi. 25 people were injured in the mishap and have been admitted to different hospitals.
The identity of four bodies was not clear as they were burnt beyond recognition and officials said in Delhi that DNA tests will be conducted to determine it.
The Railways have declared a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the next of the kin of the dead and Rs 1 lakh for those with grievous injuries. The Railways would also give job to one member of the family which has lost its breadwinner.
Suggesting something more than what meets the eye, the Railway Minister, who was in Kolkata, said, "a gateman at one of the level crossings near Nellore station heard a loud sound when the fire occurred in the coach".
The minister, who has ordered an inquiry by DK Singh, Commissioner of Railway Safety of South-Central Circle into the cause of the fire, also said the Divisional Railway Manager had referred to a report of a blast, he said.
Asked if he suspected any act of sabotage, Roy said, "I will not say anything at this stage. Nothing can be excluded and nothing can be said without an investigation. It will be investigated if inflammable substances were in the compartment or it was caused by a short circuit."
Ishan Shah, who was travelling in the ill-fated coach and had woken up due to the disturbances, however, said that he had not heard any blast.
Condoling the loss of lives, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked the Railway Ministry to render all assistance to the affected.
Earlier, Nellore District Collector B Sridhar said, the fire spread fast and the passengers could not come out through one of the doors because of the fire. So the other edge of the coach was to be used. Some people could come out while others succumbed to death, he added.
Additional Joint Collector Laxmikant said the toll could rise up to 35 as some of the bodies are still to be recovered from the charred S-11 compartment.
Nellore district police officials said 14 passengers in the bogie were safe.
Some of the passengers travelling in the train told reporters that smoke engulfed the bogie soon after the fire broke out making it difficult for them to come out.
South Central Railway (SCR) officials in Hyderabad said bodies of 19 men, six women and three children were retrieved from the ill-fated S-11 coach. Four more bodies in "unrecognisable" condition were also recovered.
The process of identification of bodies was underway and a special train carrying the relatives of the deceased was running from Chennai, they said.
SCR undertook concerted efforts with the active cooperation of the state government officials in organising immediate rescue and relief measures.
Today`s incident involving the Tamil Nadu Express is the second major train tragedy to have taken place in Andhra Pradesh in recent months. In an accident involving Hampi Express in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh in May, 25 people were killed.