AT LEAST 106 DEAD IN INDIA TRAIN WRECK; OFFICIALS CLAM UP
by Aman Singh
American Reporter India Correspondent
New Delhi, India
NEW DELHI, Sept. 11, 2002 -- A luxury express train jumped the tracks on a bridge over a river in eastern India on Monday night, killing 106 people according to latest reports with one minister also saying that it could have been an act of sabotage.
Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, who is also India's interior minister, however played down the sabotage theory, saying instead that all the information that he had received pointed to an accident.
It all happened when a most trusted 18-carriage express train, the Howrah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express, plunged into Dhave River in Aurangabad district near Rafiganj station between Gaya and Dehri-on-Sone in Bihar in Eastern Railway's Mughalsarai division, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) west of Calcutta. Some 15 cars derailed, authorities said.
Five coaches piled on top of each other after one side of the bridge collapsed into the river whose muddy waters were ankle-deep. While 67 bodies have been recovered from the coaches, and 13 people have died in hospital, one coach is yet to be opened by rescue workers.
Around 180 people have been injured in the accident in this unusual accident. Rescue workers using gas-cutters have been struggling to pull victims from the mangled cars.
The air-conditioned Rajdhani Express, bound for New Delhi from the eastern city of Calcutta, was carrying 605 people when it crashed 130 miles south of Bihar state capital, Patna, an area where Maoist rebels are active.
"We were all asleep and suddenly the whole thing went zigzag and everything started to fall on top of me," passenger Muhammad Irshad said on Tuesday, tears streaming down his cheeks. "It lasted a couple of minutes. When it was over, I realised my wife and children had been crushed to death." His children were two and three years old.
Survivors seeking missing people frantically called their names over a squeaky public address system as soldiers using lathis or bamboo canes drove back a huge crowd of onlookers. The driver of the train informed the Railway Control at Mughalsarai over his high frequency telephone at 10:54 Indian Standard Time (IST) after the accident, sources said [India is nine hours ahead of Los Angeles].
"This is no ordinary accident. Our men have found fish plates and rails removed at the site and that is the clear-cut information with us," a news agency quoted Railway Board Chairman I.I.S.M. Rana as saying. He did not name any suspects, saying an investigation was underway.
Union railway minister Nitish Kumar said that the train carriages veered off the tracks because Maoist radicals had possibly removed the bridge's fishplates and the bolts that bind them.
"Prima facie, it appears to be a case of sabotage as at the time of the derailment the train was running at 130 km/per hour ... [Had] there been any suspicion over the condition of the track, speed restrictions would have been imposed," Kumar told reporters at the accident site.
Asked why, if the tracks were tampered with, the engine and a couple of bogies did not derail, he said: "The engine and a couple of bogies (railroad cars, or carriages) passed through due to speed."
Officials in Bihar were more restrained, saying only that a probe had been ordered into the crash. The fact that this bridge was constructed in 1916 and that it was last repaired in 1956 doesn't seem to have registered in the minds of officials, who continue pointing towards sabotage as the cause of the derailment.
With one rail car still stuck in the water and 35 passengers stuck in it, officials are now losing hope of retrieving them in time. Meanwhile, more than 90 survivors of the crash in eastern India arrived in New Delhi on Wednesday, many of them limping, wounded and in a daze but glad to be alive.
At the same time, politics began its "dirty linen" game with Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi, accompanied by her husband and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Laloo Prasad Yadav, visiting the local hospitals and alleging incompetence and sabotage as the cause of the accident.
The Bihar police of Wednesday have also reportedly lodged a case against railway employees for Monday night's derailment with the driver and the guard of the train among the railway employees against whom the case has been lodged.
Meanwhile, worried relatives in Calcutta and the capital lost their patience as they protested against the "callous" railway staffers who were not being able to provide any information to them regarding the status of the passengers. The accident is being seen as a worst ever in the last decade, Most trains along the route were being diverted or were cancelled.
On the other hand are the harassed passengers who are complaining that while the accident occurred at 10:40 pm IST, aid did not reach before 2:00 pm IST the next day. Recently Union Railway Minister met Advani to discuss the accident.
While the former has stuck to his initial theory of sabotage behind the derailment, Advani, the hard-line Deputy Prime Minister, has refused to divulge any details of the meeting.
Kumar, the railways minister, told reporters that it had been decided that no official would be allowed to divulge any information from now on about any such mishap in the future. The Intelligence Bureau Chief was also present at the meeting.
With the railway administration in North and East India in a frenzy as the death toll continues to rise, it remains to be seen whether it was a 86-year-old bridge behind this mishap or a well-planned act of sabotage.