Despair and anguish stalks hospitals as India reels from devastating train crash

June 06, 2023
Family members look at photographs on a computer to identify bodies at a temporary mortuary following a train collision near Balasore, in India's eastern state of Odisha, on June 4, 2023
Family members look at photographs on a computer to identify bodies at a temporary mortuary following a train collision near Balasore, in India's eastern state of Odisha, on June 4, 2023

BALASORE — Manto Kumar was traveling on the Coromandel Express with six of his friends when his train compartment began to violently shake like an earthquake.

“Suddenly something crashed into us. Some of the coaches rolled to the other side,” the 32-year-old restaurant worker told CNN from a hospital in India’s eastern Odisha state.

“I got up and wrapped my shirt around my bleeding head. Then, I started looking for my friends. Everyone was shouting ‘save us... save us.’”

One of Kumar’s friends lost both his legs in the crash and was rushed to hospital. He did not survive his injuries.

Their story is just one of hundreds unfolding across the country as India deals with one of the worst train crashes it has ever seen.

As many as 275 people were killed and more than 1,000 others injured after the Coromandel Express slammed into a parked freight train, scattering upturned passenger cars that were then struck by a Howrah Express train traveling at high speed in the opposite direction.

Three days later, families are still trying to locate their loved ones, piles of dead bodies are waiting to be identified and hospitals are laboring to treat an overwhelming number of injured passengers.

Morgues in the city of Balasore had earlier reached full capacity, prompting officials to place some of the bodies in school corridors and a business park for families to identify.

For families that have traveled to the city, aching to locate their loved ones, the wait has been traumatic.

“I’ve been to all the hospitals and I’ve found out nothing,” Laluti Devi, who was looking for her 22-year-old son, told CNN, adding she will now travel nearly four hours south to the state’s capital Bhubaneswar, in a desperate attempt to see if he was transported to a morgue there.

Many of the dead are unclaimed, and local authorities are struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster.

On Sunday, the state government released the photographs of more than 160 victims, many in horrific condition with gruesome injuries, in a bid to help families identify the bodies.

That leaves people facing the agonizing task of scrolling though picture after picture of mangled victims on the off chance they might come across their missing loved one.

A distraught father arrived at one of the identification sites after receiving a WhatsApp photo of his dead son.

“I was looking for my son since (Saturday),” he told local outlet Mojo TV, breaking down as he pointed to the photo. His 23-year-old boy, a laborer, was traveling to the city of Chennai for his job, like many others in the coach with him.

“This is my boy. This is my boy,” the father said through tears after identifying his son’s body.

Elsewhere, two women traveled to several sites, crying with anguish as they tried to locate their missing husbands.

India’s Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said it was his “goal” to ensure that family members could find their missing loved ones as soon as possible.

“Our responsibility is not over yet,” he said.

At local hospitals, doctors were working around the clock to treat injured patients.

In Balasore, a 15-year-old boy was among hundreds of survivors that arrived at the Government Medical College for treatment.

“People who were alive were shouting for help, praying to god,” he said, adding the train was so full, there was barely any room to stand. “Rescue teams were doing their best to save people. A lot of people were crying,” he said.

Laxminaranyan Dhal, a 52-year-old farmer who was traveling alone, said he clung onto the railing of the train for survival.

“I escaped through the broken windows,” he said. “When I got out, I saw a lot of people lying around – many were dead, some were moaning in pain.”

His spinal chord injury has left him in excruciating pain, making it difficult for the laborer to sit or even to stand.

“I cannot farm anymore, it hurts too much. Only after treatment I can start working,” he said.

According to senior railway officials, the Coromandel Express, a high-speed train that was traveling from Kolkata to Chennai, was diverted onto a loop line and slammed into a heavy goods train idled at Bahanaga Bazar railway station.

Its carriages derailed onto the opposite track, where they were hit by an oncoming high-speed train, the Howrah Express, which was traveling from Bangalore.

Many of the travelers were migrant workers, en route to Chennai, an urban metropolis in the southernmost Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where jobs are more freely available.

Survivors recalled seeing crowded coaches, packed with travelers, when it began flipping and rolling from the crash.

Anushuman Purohi, who was in first class and seated toward the end of the train, said he saw many “unimaginable” injuries.

“When we opened the door, that’s when I actually heard the wail of humanity, crying out in pain, crying out for water and crying out for help,” he said.

“There were a lot of people lying on the tracks, they were injured, there was blood everywhere, there were broken bones, and it was time for us to stop thinking about ourselves and help the injured... It was chaos, it was something I can really not describe... I saw a head without a body, I saw skulls crushed, I saw bodies completely crushed by the metal, it was horrifying.”

All Sunday, workers toiled in the scorching heat to clear the wreckage, as rail cars remained rolled in a ditch and passengers’ belongings were seen strewn across the ground. Suitcases, bags, shoes and personal items lined the tracks, alongside wrought metal and charred coaches.

By late evening, the first train resumed movement at the impacted section.

Vaishnaw, the railways minister, and others waved as the train rode down the tracks.

“All the teams did a great job. But there is a lot of pain in our mind and hearts,” Vaishnaw said. “We will find out the root cause (of this incident).”

Anger is growing in India, now the world’s most populous nation, renewing calls for authorities to confront safety issues in a railway system that transports more than 13 million passengers every day.

India’s extensive rail network is one of the largest in the world and built more than 160 years ago under British colonial rule. Today, it runs about 11,000 trains every day over 67,000 miles of tracks.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in 2014 on a promise of future greatness, upgrading the country’s transport system has been a key priority in his push to create a $5 trillion economy by 2025.

In the fiscal year that started in April, Modi’s government raised capital spending on airports, road and highway construction and other infrastructure projects to $122 billion, or 1.7% of India’s GDP. But years of neglect has left many tracks to deteriorate.

A report last year by India’s auditor general, an independent office, found the amount spent on track maintenance is falling. “Due to financial constraints, the progress in track renewals is constantly coming down over the last six years,” the report said.

Decaying infrastructure is often cited as a cause for traffic delays and numerous train accidents in India. And though government statistics show that accidents and derailments have declined in recent years, they are still tragically common.

More than 16,000 people were killed in nearly 18,000 railway accidents across the country in 2021, according to latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau. Nearly 70% were due to falls from trains and collisions between trains and people on the track.

In 2005, at least 102 people died when a passenger train derailed in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh as it tried to cross tracks washed away by a flood. In 2011, scores were killed when a train jumped tracks in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

In another infamous incident in 2016, more than 140 people were killed in another derailment in Uttar Pradesh.

Railways Minister Vaishnaw said authorities have asked the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s top investigation agency, to probe Friday’s crash.

Authorities have announced compensation of about $1,200 to families who have lost loved ones.

But as teams continue to investigate the cause, no amount of money could make up for the devastating loss of life.

As Kumar, whose friend died in the crash, recalled the horror of Friday’s accident, he reflected on how lucky he was to survive. — CNN

June 06, 2023
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