Suspected Maoist rebels derailed an overnight passenger train early yesterday morning in eastern India, triggering a crash with an oncoming cargo train that killed at least 65 people and injured 200 more, officials said.
Survivors described a night of screaming and chaos after the derailment and said it took rescuers more than three hours to reach the scene. The blue passenger train and the red cargo train were knotted together in mangled metal along a rural stretch of track near the small town of Sardiha, about 150km west of Kolkata.
Officials disagreed on the cause of the derailment, with some saying it was caused by an explosion but others blaming sabotaged rail lines.
Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a statement that a section of the tracks had been cut, but “whether explosives were used is not yet clear.”
Bhupinder Singh, the top police official in West Bengal state, said posters from the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), a group local officials believe is closely tied to the Maoists, had been found at the scene taking responsibility for the attack.
Sardiha is in West Bengal.
The area is an isolated, rural stronghold of Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, who have stepped up attacks in recent months and had called for a four-day general strike starting yesterday.
The Press Trust of India said someone claiming to represent the PCPA had called its offices in Kolkata to say its members had sabotaged the track. Hours later, the press trust said PCPA spokesperson Asit Mahato had called to deny any involvement.
“We were in no way involved. This is not our act,” it quoted Mahato as saying.
Nearly 10 hours after the blast, railway police and paramilitary soldiers were using blowtorches and cables to try to reach at least a dozen passengers still trapped in the wreckage, said A.P. Mishra, general manager of the railway system in that area.
Sher Ali, a 25-year-old Mumbai factory worker, was traveling with his wife, two children and his brother’s family when they were jerked awake by a loud thud. A moment later, he said, their car was tossed from the track.
“My sister-in-law was crushed when the coach overturned. We saw her dying, but we couldn’t do anything to help her,” said Ali, who had cuts to his head and arms.
The rest of the family survived, though a 10-year-old nephew was badly injured and hospitalized.
Ali was unable to go to the hospital because all his money was in his luggage inside the wreckage and he was afraid it would be stolen unless he kept watch.
The train was traveling from Kolkata to the Mumbai suburb of Kurla when 13 cars derailed. A cargo train then slammed into three of the cars from the other direction, Indian Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee said.
Mishra said the train had been derailed by a bomb and that the tracks had also been sabotaged.
Helicopters were eventually brought in to help evacuate the injured to hospitals, officials said.
Banerjee said that the Saridha area had been the scene of earlier Naxalite attacks, and that trains were under orders to travel slowly through the region — in part so the drivers can keep watch for sabotaged tracks or bombs, and in part so the crash effects are lessened if a train does derail.