As giant excavators tried to untangle crushed trains on Saturday at the site of India’s worst rail disaster in decades, a solemn scene unfolded at a small school a few hundred meters away.
In humid air filled with the smell of human flesh, relatives went through the harrowing exercise of identifying their loved ones from some 120 dead bodies piled on the ground after Friday night’s crash.
Among the searchers was Miyah Jan Moola, who had come from neighboring West Bengal to look for his son Musavir, who was on his way to his tailoring job in Chennai. When Mr. Mullah finally found Musavir’s body, most of it had been burned, but his face was largely intact.
“When I saw my son’s face, I thought he had just fallen asleep,” Mr Mulla said. “But when I looked at his body, I raised my hands to God and asked him what I did that my flower turned into coal?”
At least 288 people were killed and more than 700 others injured in what officials in a preliminary government report described as a “three-way accident” involving two passenger trains and a stalled freight train in the eastern state of Odisha. Officials said they are investigating signal failure as a possible cause of the crash.
The complaint, outsized even in a nation with a long history of deadly crashes, renewed longstanding questions about safety problems in a system that transports more than eight billion passengers a year.
It also affected, albeit temporarily, what is emerging as one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature appeals as he prepares for a third term in office next year – his massive effort to modernize India’s long-destroyed infrastructure.
Mr Modi was due to launch the latest in a series of new high-speed trains on Saturday, each timed to build momentum for his campaign. Instead, he arrived at the devastating wreckage scene in Odisha to assess the damage.
“The people we lost, we will not be able to bring them back. But the government is with their families in their grief,” Mr. Modi said after visiting the site. “This is a very serious incident for the government. We have given directions for all lines of investigation and whoever is found responsible will face the severest punishment. They will not be spared.”
As Mr Modi left the scene after inspecting the wreckage, a large contingent of police struggled to hold back the crowd of thousands who had gathered nearby. Excavators removed what was left of the colliding trains, and railroad workers tried to clear the tracks so train service could resume.
Some initial details about the cause of the disaster began to emerge, although much remained unclear.
According to an initial government report seen by The New York Times, a high-speed passenger train traveling from Kolkata, the Coromandel Express, collided with a freight train that was empty at a station in a small town, Bahanaga Bazar, around 7:00 p.m. local time. time. The passenger train was “going full speed through the station as it was not supposed to stop” there, the report said.
After colliding with the freight train, the passenger train with 1,257 passengers sitting in reserved seats derailed. Twenty-one of its buses bounced off the track, with three of them sprawling on another track.
“Concurrently,” according to the report, a Bengaluru-to-Kolkata passenger train, the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express, carrying 1,039 passengers, headed in the opposite direction — on the track where the three displaced coaches lie. This second collision derailed the last two cars of the third train.
Officials still have no explanation as to why the freight train was stopped, nor why the Coromandel Express was not alerted to its presence on the tracks, causing the entire disaster.
Aditya Kumar Chaudhary, chief public relations officer of Southern Eastern Railways, confirmed reports that a “preliminary investigation” indicated that the cause was likely due to signal failure. But Mr Chaudhary said these initial suggestions should be tested in a thorough investigation.
“The train was supposed to go on the main line but the signal arrow was given for the circular line. That is what the supervisors indicated,” Mr. Chaudhary said. “There are a lot of ifs and buts.” It should be checked and cross-checked.’
“It was a devastating scene because the train was moving at high speed, full speed,” said Sudhanshu Sarangi, Odisha fire chief, after arriving at the crash site. “The freight train had stopped; the other two trains were moving.
Shashwat Gupta, 25, an IT worker who had boarded one of the Kolkata trains with his sister and her children to visit his parents in Cuttack, Odisha, said their bus overturned “at a 90 degree angle” after a sudden sharp movement.
“I can find the emergency window and we were able to get off the train,” he said. “In the other coaches, I heard shouting, crying. There was a lot of blood.”
The government in Odisha, home to about 45 million people, has declared a day of mourning. Dozens of trains were cancelled. Teams from the Indian Army, Air Force and National Disaster Response Force were mobilized to help. And people near the crash site ordered to donate blood.
Ashwini Vaishnau, the railways minister, told reporters on Saturday that he had ordered an inquiry to determine the cause of the accident.
“Our immediate focus is on rescue and relief,” he said from the scene. “We will know more after the investigation.”
Friday’s disaster was the deadliest since a 1995 disaster in which more than 350 people were killed when two trains collided 125 miles from Delhi.
India’s railway system, one of the largest in the world, was first developed in the 19th century by the British colonial authorities. Today, more than 40,000 miles of trail—enough to circle the Earth about one and a half times—spread like capillaries over a nation about twice the size of Alaska that stretches from the Himalayas to the rainforest.
In recent years, passenger safety has been a focus in India.
In 2012, a commission appointed to review the safety of the rail network cited “a bleak picture of inadequate performance, largely due to poor infrastructure and resources”. It recommended a range of emergency measures, including upgrading tracks, repairing bridges, removing level crossings and replacing old carriages with ones that better protect passengers in the event of an accident.
In 2016, 14 carriages derailed in northeastern India in the middle of the night, killing more than 140 sleeping passengers and injuring another 200. Officials at the time said a “fracture” in the rails may have been responsible. In 2017, a late-night derailment in southern India killed at least 36 passengers and injured 40 others.
The Modi administration has spent tens of billions of dollars renovating and upgrading old trains and tracks, accelerating work to improve train safety. Till 2020, for two consecutive years, India has recorded no passenger deaths in major train accidents. It was a first and Mr. Modi’s government hailed it as an achievement. By 2017, more than 100 passengers were killed each year.
Partha Mukkopadhyay, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Studies who previously served on the Indian government’s railway restructuring committee, said “quite a bit of capital investment” has actually reduced the incidence of accidents in recent years.
“20 or 30 years ago, India had built a lot of things but didn’t have the resources to maintain them all,” he said. “But now, even if the economy is not growing very well, these types of spending are not insufficient.”
Alex Travelli, Karan Deep Singh, Suhasini Raj, Mike Ives and Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting.