FORTY-NINE children and two adults were killed and another ten children critically injured yesterday after a train ploughed into a bus taking them to nursery school in southern Egypt.
The bus, with around 60 children aged between four and six on board, was hit near a village in the province of Assiut, a security official said.
He said it appeared the bus was driving across the tracks at a railroad crossing where the barrier remained up as the train sped towards it.
Egypt’s railway system has a poor safety record, mostly blamed on decades of badly maintained equipment and poor management.
As news of the accident –near al-Mandara, in the district of Manfaloot – spread, distraught families arrived at the crash site in search of their children. Parents wailed as they scoured the wreckage and angry villagers berated officials at the scene in the aftermath of the latest disaster to hit Egypt’s railway system.
Books, schoolbags and children’s socks were strewn along the tracks near the blood-stained, mangled bus.
Eyewitnesses said that the train hit the bus with such force that it pushed the vehicle more than half a mile along the track before it came to a stop. One man described the sound of the impact as a loud bang, like a bomb.
A woman who called herself “Um Ibrahim”, a mother of three, was tearing at her hair in distress. “My children! I didn’t feed you before you left,” she cried.
As one man picked through the wreckage, he shouted: “Only God can help!” Two hospital officials said that between seven and 11 wounded were being treated in two different facilities, many with severed limbs.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.
A doctor at the scene said the bodies of many of the dead were horribly mutilated, illustrating the force of the crash, which happened about 190 miles south of Cairo.
“I saw the train collide with the bus and push it about a kilometre along the track,” said Ahmed Youssef, a driver.
Officials said the level of destruction and mutilation made it difficult to count and identify the bodies.
Accidents traced to negligence regularly left scores dead during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, who was accused of valuing loyalty over competence in many appointments of senior officials.Widespread corruption under his three decades in power has also been blamed for the underfunding of state-run services, particularly in poor provinces outside Cairo.
The railway’s worst disaster took place in February 2002 when a train heading to southern Egypt caught fire, killing 363 people.
Media reports quoted official statistics saying that rail and road accidents claimed more than 7,000 lives in 2010.
This is the worst such tragedy since Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, took office this summer.Transport minister Mohammed el-Meteeni resigned in the wake of the crash, the state news agency reported, but some activists have accused Morsi of continuing the mistakes of his predecessor. Morsi said in a short televised address from his office that he had asked the state prosecutor to investigate the crash. “Those responsible for this accident will be held accountable,” he pledged.
Egypt’s prime minister, Hisham Kandil, ordered investigations into anyone responsible for the crash. He travelled to the scene yesterday to talk to members of the emergency services, but was jeered and shouted at as he approached.
Last night, some activists who helped engineer last year’s uprising against Mubarak said government negligence that prejudices public safety was no longer acceptable.
“President Mohammed Morsi is responsible and must follow up personally,” one such movement, the April 6 group, said in a statement. “He is the one who chose this failed government whose disasters increase day after day.”
In a heated discussion on one of the state-owned radio stations, callers and the presenter expressed outrage and demanded an immediate overhaul and modernisation of the rail network. Like most government bodies, employees at the ministry of transport complain of poor pay and poor working conditions.
Earlier this week, metro workers went on strike to protest against their working conditions, inadequate equipment and management.
Yesterday’s accident comes one week after two trains collided in another southern Egyptian province, killing four people.
Some of the country’s train accidents are blamed on an outdated system that relies heavily on a manual points system rather than computerised track switching.
Residents in Assiut complained there were not enough ambulances in the area that could respond quickly enough and that the ambulances themselves were ill-equipped to deal with the emergency.
At al-Mandara village, angry families and locals gathered near the tracks, shouting at officials. Some chanted: “Down with Morsi!”
Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, a villager, said the government should be paying more attention to its domestic problems instead of focusing its attention on the violence in neighbouring Gaza. “The blood of people in Assiut is more important than Gaza,” he said.