Minister faces flak over hasty explanation as train inferno leaves 73 passengers dead

01 Nov 2019

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RAHIM YAR KHAN: Thick clouds of smoke rise from the carriages after the ill-fated Tezgam Express caught fire on Thursday.—Online
RAHIM YAR KHAN: Thick clouds of smoke rise from the carriages after the ill-fated Tezgam Express caught fire on Thursday.—Online

RAHIM YAR KHAN/MULTAN: In a rare and one of the most horrifying tragedies in Pakistan Railways’ history, 73 passengers were killed, with 90 per cent of them burnt alive, and over 40 injured when three coaches of Rawalpindi-bound Tezgam Express caught fire near Liaquatpur on early Thursday morning, with a number of witnesses strongly disputing Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid’s claim that a couple of gas cylinders carried by a group of Tableeghi Jamaat members had caused the inferno.

Some passengers died and others sustained multiple fractures when they leapt out of doors and windows of the moving train in a bid to escape the blaze.

Mr Rashid said the affected coaches — one business class and two economy — carried over 200 people who boarded the train from Karachi, Hyderabad and Mehrabpur and were bound for Raiwind’s annual Tableeghi congregation.

Witnesses dispute Sheikh Rashid’s claim that gas cylinders caused blast

He said they were preparing breakfast at around 6am when the cylinders exploded.

However, a Tableeghi Jamaat member, who survived the blaze, told TV channels that cylinders were empty and were meant for use (cooking) during the three-day congregation which began on Thursday evening.

He said the two cylinders and a stove were in the economy class while the fire initially erupted in the business class coach due to short-circuiting and spread to the following economy coaches within no time. He said he and some other passengers had noticed a smell similar to PVC burning well before the fire eruption and informed some PR staff moving in the coaches, but they did not care.

Train driver Mohammad Siddique said he noticed the fire at 6.20am (when the train was between Liaquatpur and Channi Goth railway stations) and brought it to a halt in four minutes. He said the burning coaches in the centre of the train were detached with the help of staff on board the train.

Rescue 1122 vehicles shifted 65 bodies and more than 40 injured initially to the Liaquatpur Civil Hospital. Rahim Yar Khan’s district emergency officer Dr Abdus Sattar said they reached the site within 10 minutes of receiving the call. He said Rescue 1122 staff found some of the dead and dozens of injured, who leapt out of the train, in a stretch of two kilometres along the rail tracks.

He said staff and vehicles were mobilised from other districts as well, as over 100 ambulances and eight firefighting vehicles joined the operation. He said some women and children were also among the victims.

Later, 26 of the injured were shifted to the Sheikh Zayed Medical College Hospital, nine to Bahawal Victoria Hospital, Bahawalpur, and as many to Nishtar Hospital, Multan, by army helicopter.

Rahim Yar Khan chief executive officer of health Dr Sakhawat Randhawa said that only 15 dead bodies could be identified, adding that the rest would be identified after DNA test.

Liaquatpur Emergency Patient Welfare Society general secretary Raja Imtiaz told Dawn that he had counted 74 dead and 65 injured at the Liaquatpur hospital.

The burnt bogies were later brought to Channi Goth and track was cleared for rail traffic within two hours of the fire.

Ramsha Jahangir
Ramsha Jahangir

The railways minister said Tableeghi Jamaat’s men were stopped from using gas cylinder by a train guard by but they switched on the stove once he left. Talking to the media in Multan, Mr Rashid said Prime Minister Imran Khan had issued directive to constitute a committee to identify the people responsible for the tragedy. The committee would submit its report within 15 days.

“As far as the matter of my resignation is concerned I will talk about it on Sunday. It is our negligence that we allowed cylinders on the train. However, from now on we will not allow them to carry cylinders while travelling by train,” he said.

He claimed that the number of railway accidents during his tenure was minimal, adding that he was thankful to the army for providing air ambulance for the immediate shifting of the injured to hospitals.

The minister said one Amir Husain got booked seats for Tableeghi Jamaat men from Karachi, Mirpurkhas, Nawabshah and Hyderabad. “He was the emir of Jamaat but was not travelling and he provided us information regarding the passengers.”

He said Rs1.5 million would be given as compensation to the family of each deceased and Rs300,000 to Rs500,000 to each injured, adding that the victims would get some compensation from prime minister’s package as well.

Later, Mr Rashid visited Nishtar Hospital’s burn unit where he inquired about the health of the injured.

Meanwhile, the passengers of Tezgam Express blocked the railway track soon after the train reached the Multan railway station after it was allowed to resume journey from Liaquatpur. They shouted slogans against the government and the minister for what they called “telling lie” that the fire erupted due to cylinder blast. They said the cause was short-circuiting.

Talking to Dawn in Nishtar Hospital, passenger Shahzad Abbas said he was a resident of Karachi and was going to Gujrat. He said was in Bogie No. 12 and was awake when the incident took place.

“All of a sudden a wave of heat hit us. Everyone rushed to the door of the bogie. A thick cloud of smoke covered the bogie and I was unable to see. Instead of running towards the door where everyone was going, I preferred to jump from the window and when I was on the ground I saw two bogies on the back of our bogies under complete fire,” he said.

Nine of the injured, including a woman, were shifted to the emergency ward of Bahawal Victoria Hospital. The condition of two of them was serious.

Talking to Dawn at the BVH surgery ward, Imran Shahid, Obaidur Rehman and Shakeal said as their Bogie No.12 caught fire, they jumped out and received injuries. They said they did not know the cause of the fire but could only hear screams of the passengers.

According to them, several panicked passengers suffered injuries and died after they jumped out of windows of the train which was going at a high speed.

This is the second major train accident occurred in Rahim Yar Khan this year. On July 11, 20 people lost their lives and 80 suffered injuries when a speeding passenger train rammed into a stationary freight train at the Walhar railway station. It was explained later that the collision was caused when the passenger train by mistake diverted to a loop line where the freight train was parked.

There have been around 74 train accidents, including 20 involving freight trains, due to negligence of road users at unmanned level crossings since August 2018.

Majeed Gill also contributed to this report from Bahawalpur

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2019