AMRITSAR, India (Reuters) - A commuter train traveling at high speed ran through a crowd of people on the rail tracks in northern India killing at least 59 people on Friday, state officials said, making it India’s worst rail disaster this year.
Video footage from the scene showed hundreds had gathered to watch the burning of an effigy as part of the Dussehra festival celebrations, when a commuter train ran through the crowd.
“We have 59 confirmed dead. The toll can rise,” State police chief Suresh Arora told Reuters, adding emergency officials were still trying to ascertain the extent of the disaster on the outskirts of Amritsar in Punjab state.
A Reuters witness at the scene saw bodies of victims strewn around rail tracks, friends and relatives stood around in shock, many were sobbing and appeared distraught.
An officer in the police control room said it was hard to confirm the toll as there were dismembered body parts all over.
Reuters partner ANI, a domestic news agency, reported that the Chief Medical Officer of the Civil Hospital in Amritsar said 60 people were killed and at least 51 people were injured. Reuters could not immediately confirm that death toll.
Police said it was “freak accident” as people did not hear the train approaching amid the din of festivities and fireworks.
During the festival of Dussehra people all over the country set aflame large effigies of a 10-headed demon from the Hindu epic Ramayana in a ceremony that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
In Amritsar, video footage showed the effigy of the demon Ravana had just been lit and firecrackers were going off when the train plowed into the crowd, who were craning their necks and applauding the show.
ANI reported that a witness at the scene said the train that ran over people was traveling at a high speed.
Amarinder Singh, Punjab chief minister, said he was rushing to Amritsar to supervise relief and rescue operations.
“We have also ordered an inquiry as to why this incident has taken place,” Singh told ANI, adding he did not know why the Dussehra celebrations were being held so close to the railway tracks.
Singh declared a state of mourning and said all offices and educational institutions across the state would remain closed on Saturday.
A witness told Indian television channel Times Now that relatives of some of the deceased were picking up dead bodies by themselves and no proper rescue operations were currently taking place.
Bodies of victims lay strewn around the scene and local television stations showed distraught and angry people, including a weeping mother who just lost a child.
“Lot of students were gathered here and we can see so many unknown bodies lying around and there is not even enough light here even now,” one person on the scene told a local channel.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was extremely saddened by the train accident.
“The tragedy is heart-wrenching,” he tweeted. “My deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and I pray that the injured recover quickly. Have asked officials to provide immediate assistance that is required.”
India’s state railways, largely built during colonial rule, have an appalling safety record after decades of underinvestment in rail safety infrastructure, as the priority has remained more on keeping fares low for the 23 million passengers who use the network daily.
Seven people were killed and 21 were injured earlier this month when nine coaches of the New Farakka Express derailed in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Reporting by Munish Sharma, Sudarshan Varadhan, Amit Ganguly, Neha Singh, Nidhi Verma, and Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Euan Rocha Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean