A train ran over a group of Hindu pilgrims near a crowded station in eastern India early yesterday, killing at least 37 people and injuring many more. A mob infuriated by the deaths then attacked the driver and set fire to coaches.
Several hours after the accident, flames and dark smoke could be seen billowing out of the train coaches, as protesters blocked firefighters from accessing the station in Dhamara Ghat, a small town in Bihar state.
Dinesh Chandra Yadav, a local member of parliament, said pilgrims were crossing the tracks at the packed station when they were struck by the Rajya Rani Express train. A Bihar police officer said 37 people were killed.
Railway official Arunendra Kumar said the train was not supposed to stop at Dhamara Ghat and had been given clearance to pass through the station. However, some pilgrims waited on the tracks thinking they could stop the train, he said.
The train stopped a few hundred metres beyond the spot where it hit the pilgrims. An angry mob then pulled out the train driver and beat him, leaving him in critical condition.
The mob then got all the passengers out of the train and set some coaches on fire. Groups of young men also smashed the windows of two other trains that were in the station.
A crowd of around 5,000 people gathered near Dhamara Ghat station and chased away district officials who tried to remove the bodies from the tracks. The crowds blocked the railway tracks and the few policemen posted at the station had fled, state officials said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm in the area so that relief and rescue operations could be carried out.
Junior railway minister Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the mob set fire to at least two coaches of the train, and protesters were preventing firefighters from reaching the accident site.
Kumar Ashutosh, a passenger on the train who was travelling in the first coach next to the engine, said that within a few seconds of hitting people on the track, the driver slammed on the emergency brakes and the train ground to a halt.
“Soon, groups of people began running toward the engine. They asked us to get down from the train. Some of them pulled out the driver and his assistant and began beating them.”
District magistrate Syed Pervez Alam said the dismembered bodies of passengers who had been killed were lying on the track. The angry mob has chased away policemen and officials who tried to reach the station.
Mr Ashutosh added that although the train had been given clearance to pass through Dhamara Ghat without stopping, the driver was partly to blame.
“The driver did not slow down when the train approached the station. He maintained the high speed at which the train was moving, so it was difficult for him to stop when he realised that there were people on the track.”
Yesterday was the last day of a month of prayer ceremonies at the Katyayani temple near Dhamara Ghat, which is a popular Hindu pilgrimage site. The pilgrims were returning from offering morning prayers.
A series of disasters have befallen pilgrims in India this year. In June, thousands drowned when flash floods struck the northern state of Uttarakhand, and the Indian authorities evacuated more than 100,000. In February, dozens were killed in a train station stampede at the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival on the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.