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India death toll rises to 61 after trains crash in station

By Bikas Das
Associated Press / July 20, 2010

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SAINTHIA, India — The 22-year-old was asleep on the overnight train, headed to his distant job at a call center, when an enormous jolt awakened him and his coach flipped. He lay with his leg broken for five hours, crushed under the dead bodies of other passengers as he waited for help.

The crash between two express trains at a station in eastern India early yesterday morning killed 61 people and injured scores more. The force of the crash was so intense the roof of one car was thrust onto an overpass above the tracks.

Accidents are relatively common on India’s sprawling rail network, which is one of the world’s largest but lacks modern signaling and communication systems. Most crashes are blamed on poor maintenance and human error.

However, it was the second major train crash in West Bengal state in two months. On May 28, a passenger train derailed and was hit by a cargo train, killing 145 people. Authorities blamed sabotage by Maoist rebels for that crash.

Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee rushed to the site of yesterday’s crash and raised the possibility that it was another case of sabotage. But there was no indication that rebels were to blame, and railway officials said the crash cause was unclear.

A handful of train accidents in north India in January killed at least a dozen people and were blamed on heavy winter fog that impaired visibility. Other fatal crashes happened when rickety rail bridges give way. However, accidents as deadly as yesterday’s crash are rare.

It happened about 2 a.m. when the fast-moving Uttarbanga Express slammed into the Vananchal Express as it was leaving the platform at Sainthia station, 125 miles north of Calcutta.

Two passenger cars and a luggage car of the Vananchal Express were destroyed. The passenger cars were reserved for those on the cheapest tickets and such carriages are usually packed to capacity.

Residents scrambled onto the crashed cars, searching for survivors. Hours later, rescue workers arrived, bringing heavy equipment to cut through the debris.

“I was trapped there in horrible pain until rescue workers with gas cutters cut into the coach and pulled me out,’’ said Mithun Mahato, 22, who was heading to his job in the eastern city of Ranchi. He was pulled out around 7 a.m., nearly five hours after the crash.

Mohammed Iris, 52, managed to crawl out of his coach on the Vananchal Express an hour after it overturned.

Most of the survivors were being treated at a government hospital.

Rescuers recovered 61 bodies from the crash site and at least 125 other people were injured, said Surajit Kar Purkayastha, a top police official. The two drivers of the Uttarbanga Express were among the dead.

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