At least 40 people were killed and over 65 injured after the 18448 Hirakhand Express went off the rails in Andhra Pradesh’s Vizianagaram district late on Saturday evening. All the dead and injured were travelling in the train, going from Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh to Bhubaneswar.
Most of the dead were from Odisha. Late on Sunday evening, rescuers were trying to cut open a mangled general compartment and a sleeper compartment, and the toll was expected to go up. “We will get the final death toll only after these two bogies are searched,” Rayagada SP K Sivasubramani said.
By late evening, 27 bodies had been identified and handed over to their families after autopsy, officials said.
WATCH VIDEO | MHA Asks NIA To Probe Sabotage Angle In Hirakhand Express Tragedy
This was the third major derailment in a little over two months. On November 10 last year, 14 coaches of the Indore-Patna Express derailed at Pukhrayan, 60 km from Kanpur, resulting in at least 150 deaths.
A month later, 15 coaches of the Ajmer-Sealdah Express flew off the tracks, again near Kanpur, injuring at least 50 passengers. Both accidents were suspected to have been caused by fractures in the tracks.
The Hirakhand Express had left Rayagada in Odisha at 11 pm on Saturday and had just entered Andhra Pradesh when its driver apparently heard a sharp sound like a cracker going off. Almost immediately, nine of the train’s 22 coaches — an AC 2-tier coach, an AC 3-tier coach, four sleeper coaches, two general compartments, and the luggage van and guard’s cabin — apart from the locomotive itself, jumped the rails.
The reason for the derailment was not immediately clear, with a Railways spokesman saying it could be “anything”. The Railway Ministry was looking at the possibility of sabotage, but the Odisha Police ruled out the involvement of Maoists.
The railway authorities’ suspicion was based on the fact that a goods train had passed the accident spot about 20 minutes earlier, without its driver or anyone else reporting anything abnormal. A track patrolman, as per protocol, had reportedly inspected the area, and had not noticed anything out of the ordinary.
However, after the derailment, zonal railway authorities found two deep cuts in the rails, which they concluded could have been caused only through the involvement of external factors.
“While I am not using the ‘S’ word, let the Commissioner of Railway Safety investigate all possible angles and not foreclose any possibility while determining the cause,” Chandralekha Mukherjee, Divisional Railway Manager of Waltair Division, told The Indian Express.
As per the Waltair Division’s logs, at 21.05 pm, a goods train had passed that point. Thereafter, at 10.40 pm, a patrolman had inspected the area, before another goods train crossed around 10.52 pm. The Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar Express reached the point at 11.15 pm, and was derailed.
The loco pilot of the train has told authorities that he applied the emergency brakes after sensing an unusual jerk.
The area is on the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border, some patches of which are known to be affected by left wing extremism. No organisation has, however, claimed responsibility for the accident yet.
“There is no indication of a Maoist hand behind the derailment,” said Odisha DGP K B Singh, who visited the spot with Chief Secretary A P Padhi.
Railways spokesman Anil Saxena told The Indian Express the reason for the derailment “could be rail fracture or some external factors or anything. At this point we are not ruling out any possibility”.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, who visited the accident spot with Railway Board chairman A K Mittal, said those responsible will not be spared. “Stringent action will be taken against those who played with the lives of so many people,” he said. Prabhu announced Rs 2 lakh ex-gratia for the kin of the deceased. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced Rs 5 lakh for those belonging to Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu announced Rs 2 lakh for those from his state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed condolences on Twitter. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh “expressed deep grief” at the loss of lives.
CRPF jawan Pawan Prasad Shankar, who was travelling in S-9 on way to join his 64 battalion in Keonjhar, was chatting with the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) when the derailment occurred. “The lights went off. The door remained shut, but a part of the roof opened up. I held on to the window bars. There were cries and screams all around,” said Shankar, who has an injury in his neck. He could get out of the coach only after a CRPF team from the nearby Kuneru camp reached the spot.
Arjun Behera, a lecturer in a government college in Koraput, who was travelling in an AC coach, said he thought an earthquake had struck. “I was sleeping. My coach was far away from the engine. I felt a huge shake and rattling. When I got out, all I could hear was the cries of injured passengers. It was pitch dark outside,” he said.
Retired state government servant Tankadhar Bag, who was travelling in S-8, said two men sleeping on the upper berths fell on him, almost suffocating him. “Both of them died and for at least two hours I was trapped under them, trying to breathe. I thought I was going to die,” said Bag, writhing in pain at Rayagada district headquarters hospital.
Around 16 ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals. The police, CRPF, Railway Police and Railway Protection Force all joined in the rescue. Nearly 100 personnel of the National Disaster Response Force were at the spot. The dead were mostly travelling in coaches S-8 and S-9, officials said.