Three coaches of a running express train caught fire in northern India early yesterday, killing at least 39 passengers, police said.
An additional 20 passengers were injured as the blaze engulfed the rear coaches of the Golden Temple Express, which was heading to the northern Indian city of Amritsar from Bombay, police officer Amandeep Singh said.
A railroad official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fire started in the restroom of one of the coaches and spread quickly to two other coaches.
The train stopped as panicked passengers pulled the emergency chains and the burning coaches were detached at Ladhowal railroad station, nearly 300km north of New Delhi. The train later left for Amritsar.
Harpal Singh, a businessman from New Delhi, survived but his friend Paramjit Singh perished in the fire.
"I was awakened by the shouts of passengers and found my way to another coach using the vestibule," Singh said after the train reached the northern city of Amritsar.
"Passengers pulled the chain to stop the train after they noticed the fire. They jumped off as the train slowed down and came to a halt," he said.
Rescuers and local villagers took nearly three hours to extinguish the flames, police said.
"The cause of fire is being investigated," said Railroad Minister Nitish Kumar.
The injured were hospitalized in the nearby city of Ludhiana in Punjab state. Most were suffering from serious burns and fractured limbs.
The burned coaches of melted metal were brought to the city, as relatives began streaming in to get word of their loved ones.
"We were all sleeping at the time," said Padma Wati, who was traveling to Amritsar to pray at the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs in India, with her two teenage children and sister.
Wati said she awoke around 4am when she heard others rushing toward the windows and banging on doors. She jumped from a door with her family, but could not find her children at the civil hospital in Ludhiana where she was being treated for minor scratches.
"Some of the hospital staff told me that they are safe, but I'm worried and I want to see them," she said.