The crash involved high-speed trains that collided “head-on,” Odisha’s director of fire and emergency services, Sudhanshu Sarangi, said, calling it “a major, major tragedy.”
“Psychologically, we were not prepared to see so many dead bodies,” said Sarangi, who was supervising the rescue operation. More than 300 rescue workers were involved in the search, “but then as our evening progressed … we were not really hopeful of finding survivors,” he said.
The disaster unfolded around 7 p.m. local time Friday, when the Coromandel Express, which was ferrying passengers from Howrah to Chennai on India’s eastern coast, derailed and hit a freight train near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore, a district in Odisha. Soon after the initial crash, the Superfast Express running from Bangalore to Howrah with roughly 1,000 passengers crashed into the other two trains, according to Aditya Kumar Chaudhary, a spokesman for the South Eastern Railway zone.
By Saturday evening local time, the death toll had reached 288, Chaudhary said, adding that 17 passenger compartments had derailed.
Photographs and video from the wreckage site showed overturned train cars. Witnesses said people converged at the scene and tried to pull survivors from the mounds of mangled steel as emergency alarms sounded and the injured cried out for help.
A medical officer at Balasore District Hospital said Saturday afternoon that 1,053 people had been brought to the facility, 183 of them already dead. Fifty-five died at the hospital, he said.
“I have never seen something like this in my life. This is the first time we have received so many patients,” D. Jagatdeo said by phone from his office, where he had been stationed since the previous night.
Only two other railway collisions in India — both of which occurred in the 1990s — resulted in higher death tolls. India has one of the world’s largest railway networks, behind the United States, China and Russia, and it carries 13 million people daily.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led high-profile campaigns to modernize the country’s railway infrastructure with high-speed trains and state-of-the-art design. After Friday’s collision, critics argued that the country should focus on improving existing infrastructure rather than building high-tech amenities.
The government had ordered a probe into the causes of the crash, “and whoever is found guilty will not be spared,” Modi said after visiting the crash site and the Fakir Mohan Hospital in Balasore, where some of the injured passengers were being treated, India’s ANI news agency reported.
Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw announced shortly after the crash that victims and their families would be compensated: About $12,000 would be given to the families of those who died, and people who had suffered “grievous” and “minor” injuries would receive $2,400 and $600, respectively. Some regional and opposition politicians have called for Vaishnaw’s resignation.
The Odisha state government declared Saturday a day of mourning.
Sachin Gupta, a group commander with the Indian Air Force and a passenger on the Coromandel Express, said the jolt sent him and his laptop flying into the seat in front of him. When he left the coach, he saw bodies strewn across the train tracks and a nearby ditch, and he heard shouting from people trapped in the wreckage. By 9 p.m., he saw the authorities arriving floodlights and gas cutters to gain entry into the tangle of steel.
“It was a disastrous situation. Everyone was asking for help,” he said. “There was so much damage. It looked like cars had gone inside of each other.”
Manas Bhunia, a minister from neighboring West Bengal state who visited the scene Friday night, said it was a “terrifying accident.” He saw local residents help carry bodies out of the wreckage. “I’ve never seen an accident like this ever before in my life. The situation is very serious,” he said in an interview Saturday morning.
Dola Sen, a member of Parliament from West Bengal, also arrived Friday night and saw that local villagers were among the first to help in the rescue.
“We are all in shock. It is very painful. I have never seen in my life such a huge accident on a railway track. Whoever still has life in them, we need to get them treatment right away,” she said from the crash site Saturday morning. “The railway track, the electrical lines, the electrical posts — everything is entangled.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said on Twitter: “We are monitoring news of the horrific train crash in Odisha, India. Our thoughts are with the people of India at this time.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the images and reports from the crash “break my heart,” while British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly offered “heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims.”
Anshuman Purohit, 46, an advertising executive from Singapore who was traveling in first class on the Coromandel Express to visit his family in Odisha, said he smelled pungent smoke after hearing a loud thud and rushed out of the coach with other passengers. “I realized how disastrous it was when I walked down the road and saw what had become of the other compartments,” he said. “It is a miracle how I survived.”
Vinall reported from Melbourne, Australia, and Parker from Paris. Mikhail Klimentov and Kyle Rempfer in Washington contributed to this report.