Amritsar: In a terrible disaster, 58 people watching the burning of a Ravan effigy from a railway track were crushed to death by a speeding train here in Punjab on Friday, triggering anger in the area and nationwide outrage. Nearly 72 others were injured, many of them seriously.
A large number of some 700 people were watching the huge Ravan effigy in flames amid exploding crackers while on the tracks at Joda Phatak near Dhobi Ghat within the city when the Jalandhar-Amritsar DMU passenger train coming to Amritsar from Hoshiarpur came hurtling down around 7 p.m.
It took just about 10-15 seconds for the train to pass — and leave behind a heap of crushed and dismembered bodies.
Amritsar Police Commissioner S.S. Srivastava told reporters that 58 people have died and 72 have been rushed to hospitals in the city. The toll could go up, Srivastava said.
The state government has declared state mourning on Saturday and all offices and educational institutions will remain closed in view of the tragedy, an official spokesperson said, adding a probe has also been ordered.
Video clips posted on the social media showed some people who had apparently seen the approaching train trying to run away from the site. A few of them were also mowed down.
Wails and cries filled the air as people frantically looked for their near and dear ones. Severed bodies, including those of children, were lying at the accident site hours after the incident with angry people not allowing authorities to remove them.
“I have lost my child. I want him back,” an inconsolable mother was wailing at the disaster spot.
Most people reportedly could not hear the hooting of the train due to the exploding crackers.
“Out of nowhere came the train,” said a man, while speaking to journalists. “Before anyone could realise what was happening, it ran over scores of people.”
“When the effigy started to burn in full flow, people began running away from it fearing it may fall over them,” said another man. “They did not realise that a speeding train was coming and the train did not sound its hooter.”
Another man felt that the tragedy would have claimed at least 100 lives. The dead included several children, another witness said.
Ironically, moments before the tragedy, another train passed the area but there were no casualties, a railway official said.
A local resident, Nirmal Jit Sindhu, alleged that the Dussehra celebrations were organised by forcing the local administration to grant permission near the railway tracks.
He said last year the administration had not granted permission for the use of this venue for Dussehra celebrations owing to its proximity to the tracks.
Some people blamed Local Bodies Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur, who was the Chief Guest at the celebrations, saying her late arrival delayed the burning of the effigy by more than half an hour.
Sidhu told a news channel on telephone from Bengaluru that the death toll was alarmingly high.
BJP leader and former local bodies minister Anil Joshi blamed Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur for running away from the Dussehra celebrations site soon after the train accident.
“The Dussehra celebrations were organised without the local administration permission. She (Navjot Kaur) disappeared midway during the ceremony when she was apprised about the disaster,a Joshi told reporters.
“The driver didn’t slow down the train and was watching towards the burning Ravana,” said one of the witnesseses.
Another woman was inconsolable as she said her son was missing.
“The administration and the Dussehra committee are at fault as they should have informed the railways authorities about the celebrations”, said another eyewitness.
Eyewitnesses said there were no barricading near the railway tracks and the people were forced to see the Dussehra ceremony by standing on tracks.
The effigy of Ravana was being burnt around 200 feet away from the railway track.
A railway official said in New Delhi that the drop gates at the spot were down but people still massed on the tracks in violation of railway rules.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh announced Rs 5 lakh compensation to the kin of the deceased and cancelled his proposed Israel visit to rush to Amritsar.
“District authorities have been mobilized on war footing,” he tweeted.
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed condolences over the horrific tragedy.
“Extremely saddened by the accident in Amritsar. The tragedy is heart-wrenching… I pray that the injured recover quickly,” Modi said.
The Prime Minister announced Rs 2 lakh compensation to the families of the dead and Rs 50,000 to the injured.
Similar messages came from the Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Delhi. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal cancelled all his engagements in the US and was flying back to India.
Several senior railway officials were set to fly by an Indian Air Force plane to Amritsar to help oversee the relief and rescue effort.