A speeding train that crashed into a bus carrying Egyptian children to their kindergarten on Saturday killed 51 and prompted a wave of anger against a government under mounting pressure to rectify the former regime’s legacy of neglect.
The crash, which killed children between four and six years old and three adults, led to local protests and accusations from outraged Egyptians that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is failing to deliver on the demands of last year’s uprising for basic rights, dignity and social justice.
The accident left behind a mangled shell of a bus underneath the train outside the city of Assiut, some 320km south of Cairo. Children’s books, schoolbags and tiny socks were strewn along the tracks.
Um Ibrahim, a mother whose three children were on the bus, pulled her hair in grief.
“My children! I didn’t feed you before you left,” she wailed in horror.
A witness said the train pushed the bus along the tracks for nearly a kilometer.
More than a dozen injured children were being treated in two different facilities, many with severed limbs and in critical condition.
Morsi appeared on state television, promising an investigation and financial compensation for victims’ families. His transport minister and the head of Egypt’s railways resigned.
“Those responsible for this accident will be held accountable,” Morsi said.
The response, his critics say, comes too little too late. For months, transport workers have been complaining about poor management and poor working conditions. Saturday’s accident falls exactly one week after two trains collided south of Cairo, killing four people.
While many train accidents in Egypt are blamed on an outdated system that relies heavily on switch operators instead of automated signaling, the high death toll and fact that nearly all those killed were young children will likely give ammunition to Morsi’s critics who say he has done little to improve life for ordinary Egyptians.
Opposition activists have accused Morsi of continuing the mistakes of his predecessor by not overhauling government services. They say he is too focused on foreign policy while moving slowly to tackle a myriad of domestic problems.
A day before Saturday’s accident in al-Mandara village in Assiut Province, the president positioned Egypt as a new Arab champion for the Palestinians. However, with more children killed in Saturday’s accident than by Israeli bombs in the Gaza Strip since an escalation in fighting, he is already being called on to refocus efforts at home.
“The blood of people in Assiut is more important than Gaza,” said Sheik Mohammed Hassan, a village elder speaking at the scene of the accident.
Evening talk shows and state-radio programs fielded calls from an outraged public that demanded answers as to why Morsi had not visited the region on Saturday and instead chose to keep his meetings in Cairo with foreign leaders seeking an end to the Gaza-Israel fighting.
Residents near the crash site say the railway crossing guard was asleep on Saturday when the bus drove over the track. It appeared the crossing was not closed as the train sped toward it. Authorities detained a railway worker who had fled the scene.