Zee Media Bureau
Bangalore/Hyderabad: In a tragic incident, a coach of Nanded-Bangalore Express caught fire here early Saturday.
At least 26 passengers, including 12 women and two children, were burnt to death when an air-conditioned coach of the Bangalore-Nanded Express caught fire near Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, officials said.
"Of the 65 passengers in the AC-3-tier B-1 coach, 39 escaped the blaze with injuries and 15 of them were admitted to hospitals at Anantapur and Puttaparthi for emergency treatment," South Western Railway spokesman S Biswas told a news agency.
The ill-fated train left Bangalore at 10:45 pm on Friday for an overnight journey to Nanded in Maharashtra, about 1,040 km away.
Though the exact cause of the fire is not known, railway officials suspect a short circuit in the AC coach could have triggered the inferno.
Railway Board chairman Arunendra Kumar said prima facie there could be two reasons - one is short circuit and the other presence of inflammable material.
"Preliminary reports indicate that the cause of the fire was electrical short-circuit near the Air-Conditioning Unit," Andhra Director General of Police B Prasada Rao said.
The blaze spread rapidly in the early hours (around 3 am) when the train was travelling towards Dharmavaram from Kothacheruvu station after leaving Prashanti Nilayam station at Puttaparthi pilgrim town, about 150 km from Bangalore.
"A couple of passengers who jumped out of the burning coach reported seeing fire in the electrical unit at one end of the coach and flames spreading across rapidly as the coach has sealed windows and hydraulic air-tight doors on either side," a railway engineer, supervising the rescue and relief operations, told a news agency from the spot.
The gutted coach was carrying passengers to Nanded and other destinations en-route. The train passes through north Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Marathwada region of eastern Maharashtra.
The blazing coach was detached from the vestibule train soon after passengers noticed flames leaping out of it and the train was suddenly stopped. Some of the survivors jumped out of the burning coach after breaking window panes of its toilets.
The rest of the train was allowed to resume its journey at 7 am after the burnt coach was shifted to a loop line.
"The passengers list, released later in the day, showed that about 80 percent of the tickets were booked online, as `e-ticket` was mentioned in the remarks column," Biswas said.
Anantapur district collector DS Lokesh Kumar and Deputy Inspector General of Police B Balakrishna supervised the rescue and relief operations, which began only after daybreak due to poor visibility under foggy conditions.
A few surviving passengers complained to the district authorities that there was no fire extinguisher in the AC coach.
The railways set up helpline numbers to disseminate latest information to passengers and family members of the affected.
Helplines: Bangalore numbers – 080-22354108, 080-22259271, 080-22156551, 080-22156554
SSP Nilayam station – 085-552 80125, 097-31666863
Heart-rending scenes were witnessed at the state-run Victoria hospital in Bangalore where charred bodies, many of them beyond recognition, were brought from the accident site in four ambulances. Relatives and friends of the victims rushed to identify them.
"The bodies will be kept in the hospital morgue for forensic tests for identification. Blood samples of their relatives will be taken to match with that of the victims through DNA test," South Western Railway deputy chief engineer Hari Babu said.
According to a doctor at the hospital, femur (thigh bone) of the dead will be preserved for DNA tests as many bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed shock and grief following the tragedy. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy has also expressed shock and has directed the district authorities of Anantapur to render all possible assistance to the victims and their family members. Union Railway Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge and Union Minister of State for Railways Kotla Jaya Surya Prakash Reddy rushed to the site for first-hand account of the tragedy.
He said only nine bodies had been identified and efforts were on to find out the kith and kin of the victims through the addresses given by them or using the mobile phones. A two-year-old baby girl is among the dead. Kharge announced an inquiry by Railway Safety Commissioner adding the probe would unearth "what are the lapses.. How it happened, lack of maintenance or negligence of staff or faulty electricity , everything will be done."
He also announced Rs 5-lakh ex-gratia to the kin of the victims. He assured the injured that their treatment expenses would be met by the railways.
This is the second train incident in the district. In the previous incident in May 2012, 25 passengers were killed when the Bangalore-bound Hampi Express from Hubli in north Karnataka rammed into a stationary freight train near Penukonda in the district after its driver overshot the signal near the station.
(With Agency inputs)