AT LEAST 28 passengers were charred to death in the early hours today when a fire broke out in the S 11 compartment of the Chennai-bound Tamil Nadu Express at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. Twenty-five were admitted to three hospitals in Nellore,with the condition of two serious.
So destructive was the fire that it gutted the coach and burned most of the bodies beyond recognition. There were 72 passengers inside the coach.
According to railway officials,the fire broke out around 4.20 am,minutes after the train coming from Delhi had left the Nellore station. The fire was also noticed by officials at the station,who signalled the driver to stop. Soon,noxious smoke engulfed the compartment,choking passengers and reducing visibility,which added to the chaos.
While South Central Railway officials said a short-circuit may have caused the fire,Railway Minister Mukul Roy said he wasnt ruling out a blast. I got a call from the divisional railway manager that there was report of a blast. I dont want to dwell on it further since you will infer that I am trying to divert the cause of the mishap to another direction, Roy told reporters in Delhi before leaving for the accident site.
He also told PTI that some of the injured passengers and a gateman at one of the level crossings near Nellore station heard a loud sound before the fire started.
Asked about possible sabotage,Roy said: Nothing is being ruled out and nothing can be said without an investigation.
A passenger who noticed the fire managed to pull the emergency chain that brought the train to a halt. But by then,the smoke and fire had spread.
To make matters worse,the passengers had pulled down the shutters due to a slight drizzle a little while before the fire,and the RPF personnel on board had locked the doors as is routine to prevent those without tickets from entering the coach.
As a result,when the fire damaged the electric lines,the passengers had no light to find their way to the exit.
K K Suneel Kumar,37,a railway employee who was travelling to the regional office in Chennai,was one of the few survivors who escaped with minor injuries as he managed to get to the next coach.
I remember hearing cracking sounds as the fire spread. But it was so dark because of the smoke that I didnt actually see the fire. With a group of others,I managed to reach the next compartment but almost fainted. Then an able-bodied man pulled me up and helped me jump out of the coach. When I looked back,thick black smoke was billowing out of the coach even as firemen were trying to douse the fire, he said.
Y Priya,23,was on her way to Madurai on the S 13 coach of the train when she was woken up by the commotion. As she got down,a woman with burn injuries and a baby in hand sought her help.
She wanted to make a call to her mother but the call went unanswered. Wih the help of a few people,we managed to bring her to the hospital where she handed over the one-year-old child to me before being taken to the ICU, narrated Priya.
Priya tried the number again and got through to her kin. While the woman,Veena,is now out of danger,her husband and three-year-old son have not been traced.
Y Sampath,a software engineer in a Chennai-based company,was travelling with his sister. Though he managed to escape without any serious injuries,his sister is still missing.
Clad in blue plastic sheets,the charred unidentified bodies have been kept at the Nellore station for the time being. The train was first brought to Nellore station where the coach was disconnected from the rest. Officials then cut open the coach to bring out the bodies.
South Central Railway public relations officer Sambasiva Rao said officials at Nellore railway station had seen the fire and raised an alarm. There is no stop at Nellore but as the train was passing through the station,the fire was noticed by railway officials. The train driver was alerted and the train was brought to a halt about a kilometre or two away. Some passengers could jump out of the coach and saved themselves… Some survivors complained that the doors of the coach jammed. A probe has been ordered and this aspect will also be looked into, Rao said.
The Railway Ministry has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh for the deceased,Rs 1 lakh for the grievously injured and Rs 25,000 for passengers with simple injuries. Commissioner of Railway Safety of South-Central Circle D K Singh will conduct a probe into the accident.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy,opposition leader N Chandrababu Naidu and Chiranjeevi visited the station and the hospitals.