ANANTAPUR, December 28: In yet another gruesome tragedy, barely 18 months after a similar accident in this district, 26 passengers were burnt alive as an air-conditioned coach of the Bangalore City-Nanded Express caught fire in the early hours of Saturday.
Among the dead were 12 men and a child. The fire was noticed around 3.30 a.m. in the B1 coach when the train was a few kilometres away from Kothacheruvu.
An electrical short-circuit is believed to have started the fire. In fact, Mr. Kharge referred to reports that electrical failure may have triggered the blaze and warned that stringent action would be taken against those responsible if this was found to be true.
Director-General of Police B. Prasada Rao also said preliminary reports pointed to an electrical short circuit near the air-conditioning unit.
Senior railway officials, however, felt that a fire of this magnitude could not have been caused by a loose wire or a short-circuit. Safety, they said, was high on their agenda even during routine maintenance of coaches.
It was the scream of a woman passenger, who first noticed the fire, that woke up the sleeping passengers. Alerted by the uproar, the Travelling Ticket Examiner pulled the chain and stopped the train (No 16594), preventing the fire from spreading to other coaches.
The TTE, the loco driver and the passengers disconnected the burning coach from the rest of the train and shunted it to a loop line. Several passengers were stuck at the exits, one of which would not open. The stampede inside the compartment only compounded the confusion.
Some passengers picked up heavy objects and managed to break some window panes. Many of them jumped out even as the train was screeching to a halt, injuring themselves in the process. Fire-fighters quickly forced their way into the coach and pulled out a dozen passengers. The billowing smoke inside the coach was so intense that a fire-fighter fainted.
Fire personnel and police from the District Armed Reserve found many charred bodies, many of them unrecognisable. Towards Saturday evening, a team of experts from Hyderabad arrived to collect DNA samples to identify the victims.
“The curtains were the first to catch fire, burning faster than we could react,” said Natesh, a survivor from Chennai. Sadly, the older people were pushed aside and left behind in the rush. “My wife’s brother Vivek broke the window in a washroom and led our eight-member family out in zero visibility,” he said. His five-year-old daughter Tanushree and wife Vijita suffered 35 per cent burns and were shifted to Bangalore.
Railway Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge and his colleague Kotla Jayasuryaprakash Reddy visited the spot and announced Rs. 5 lakh as ex-gratia for the families of each of those dead and Rs. 1 lakh and Rs. 50,000 for the injured.
The Railways have also set up helpline numbers to disseminate latest information to passengers and family members of the affected.
The Bangalore numbers are — 080 22354108, 080 22259271, 080 22156551 and 080 22156554.
Helpline numbers at SSP Nilayam station are — 085 552 80125 and 097 31666863