Graphic content warning: injuries described.
Balasore, Odisha — In a harrowing incident, Manto Kumar found himself caught in a nightmare aboard the Coromandel Express. As the train violently shook, chaos ensued when an unknown object collided with their compartment, causing coaches to topple. Recounting the horror from a hospital bed in Odisha, Manto described the desperate moments of seeking safety amidst the wreckage.
Tragically, one of Manto’s friends sustained life-threatening injuries, losing both legs in the crash. Despite the swift medical response, the friend succumbed to his wounds, adding another heartbreaking chapter to this catastrophe.
This grim account is just one of many unfolding stories across India, where one of the nation’s worst train accidents has plunged the country into grief. The collision between the Coromandel Express and a stationary freight train claimed the lives of at least 275 people, leaving over 1,000 others injured. The impact caused passenger cars to flip, exacerbating the devastation when the Howrah Express collided with the overturned wreckage at high speed.
Days after the incident, families continue their agonizing search for missing loved ones, while hospitals strive relentlessly to provide care amidst the overwhelming influx of injured passengers. The nation remains burdened by the task of identifying the deceased, as piles of bodies await recognition, painting a heart-wrenching picture of the aftermath.
Due to the overwhelming number of fatalities, the morgues in the city of Balasore had already reached their full capacity. As a result, officials had no choice but to place some of the bodies in school corridors and a business park to provide space for families to identify their loved ones.
For the families who have arrived in the city desperately searching for their relatives, the wait has been an agonizing and traumatic experience. Laluti Devi, who was searching for her 22-year-old son, expressed her anguish, stating that she has visited all the hospitals in vain. She has now decided to travel almost four hours south to the state capital, Bhubaneswar, hoping to find any information about her son and whether he may have been transported to a morgue there.
Sadly, a significant number of the deceased remain unclaimed, adding to the challenges faced by local authorities who are struggling to cope with the immense scale of this disaster.
In an attempt to assist families in identifying the bodies, the state government released photographs of over 160 victims on Sunday. Many of these images portray the victims in horrifying conditions, displaying gruesome injuries. The hope is that these visuals will aid families in the identification process amidst this tragic situation.
The task of scrolling through images of mangled victims in the hope of finding missing loved ones is a harrowing experience. Each picture holds the potential to bring a glimmer of hope or deepen the anguish. A distraught father, driven by desperation, arrived at one of the identification sites after receiving a devastating WhatsApp photo of his deceased son. As he broke down in tears, he pointed to the image, affirming, “This is my boy. This is my boy.” The pain of loss was etched on his face, as he confronted the heartbreaking reality of his son’s fate.
In another part of the city, two women embarked on a painful journey, traveling to several sites in a quest to locate their missing husbands. Their cries of anguish echoed through the air as they confronted the overwhelming uncertainty and fear that gripped their hearts. With each unsuccessful attempt to find their loved ones, their anguish intensified, leaving them emotionally exhausted and devastated.
The gravity of the situation weighs heavily on the affected families and the community as a whole. The immense tragedy has thrust them into an unimaginable state of grief and uncertainty. The process of identifying the victims has become a grueling and distressing task, as families are forced to confront the grim reality of the disaster. The scenes of sorrow and desperation underscore the profound impact that this devastating event has had on the lives of countless individuals, leaving scars that will last a lifetime.
“Our responsibility is not over yet,” said India’s Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, emphasizing his goal to ensure that family members could find their missing loved ones as soon as possible.
At local hospitals, doctors were working around the clock to treat injured patients.
“People who were alive were shouting for help, praying to god,” shared a 15-year-old survivor at the Government Medical College in Balasore. He described the train as being so full that there was barely any room to stand. “Rescue teams were doing their best to save people. A lot of people were crying,” he added.
These firsthand accounts and the ongoing efforts of medical professionals highlight the dedication and challenges faced in the wake of the train crash. The commitment to provide care to the injured and reunite families remains steadfast, reflecting the resilience and determination of those involved in this tragic incident.
“I escaped through the broken windows,” recounted Laxminaranyan Dhal, a 52-year-old farmer who was traveling alone, describing his harrowing experience during the train crash. “When I got out, I saw a lot of people lying around – many were dead, some were moaning in pain.”
The severity of the incident has left Dhal with a spinal cord injury, causing excruciating pain and hindering his ability to sit or stand. As a laborer, this injury has greatly impacted his livelihood.
“I cannot farm anymore, it hurts too much. Only after treatment I can start working,” Dhal expressed, highlighting the urgent need for medical attention to alleviate his suffering and enable him to resume his work.
According to senior railway officials, the devastating train accident occurred when the Coromandel Express, a high-speed train on its route from Kolkata to Chennai, was redirected onto a loop line and collided with a stationary freight train at Bahanaga Bazar railway station.
As a result of the collision, the carriages of the Coromandel Express derailed onto the adjacent track, where they were struck by the oncoming Howrah Express, a fast train traveling from Bangalore.
Witnesses and survivors vividly recall the chaotic scene of the accident, describing the crowded coaches of the train flipping and rolling as a result of the impact.
Tragically, among the passengers affected by this incident were numerous migrant workers who were on their way to Chennai, a bustling urban center in Tamil Nadu, seeking employment opportunities.
This heartbreaking event has brought immense suffering to those involved, further highlighting the importance of ensuring the safety and well-being of railway passengers.
Throughout the scorching heat of Sunday, workers persevered to clear the wreckage, with rail cars lying in a ditch and passengers’ belongings scattered across the ground. The tracks were adorned with suitcases, bags, shoes, and personal items, alongside twisted metal and charred coaches.
As evening approached, a significant milestone was achieved when the first train resumed its journey through the affected section. Railway Minister Vaishnaw, along with others, stood by the tracks, waving as the train rolled past, symbolizing a glimmer of hope and progress amidst the aftermath of the tragic incident.
“All the teams did a great job. But there is a lot of pain in our mind and hearts,” Vaishnaw said. “We will find out the root cause (of this incident).”
Lack of funding and maintenance
Anger is growing in India, now the world’s most populous nation, renewing calls for authorities to confront safety issues in a railway system that transports more than 13 million passengers every day.
India’s vast railway network, established over 160 years ago during British colonial rule, stands as one of the world’s largest. Covering a staggering 67,000 miles of tracks, it facilitates the operation of approximately 11,000 trains each day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came into power in 2014 with a vision of propelling India to new heights, has made significant efforts to upgrade the country’s transportation system. Enhancing the infrastructure has become a crucial focus in his ambitious goal of building a $5 trillion economy by 2025.
In the current fiscal year, starting in April, the Modi government has allocated a substantial amount of capital expenditure, totaling $122 billion, equivalent to 1.7% of India’s GDP, for various infrastructure projects, including airports, road and highway construction. However, years of neglect have taken a toll on the railway tracks, resulting in their deterioration and the need for urgent attention.
A report by India’s auditor general, an independent office, highlighted the decline in expenditure on track maintenance. It stated, “Due to financial constraints, the progress in track renewals is constantly coming down over the last six years.”
Decaying infrastructure is frequently identified as a leading factor contributing to traffic delays and numerous train accidents in India. While government statistics indicate a decrease in accidents and derailments in recent years, they sadly remain all too frequent occurrences.
The latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau reveal that in 2021, over 16,000 people lost their lives in nearly 18,000 railway accidents throughout the country. Nearly 70% of these accidents were attributed to falls from trains and collisions between trains and individuals on the tracks.
Tragic incidents from the past serve as grim reminders of the dangers associated with railway travel. In 2005, a derailment in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh claimed the lives of at least 102 people when the train attempted to cross tracks washed away by a flood. Similarly, in 2011, a train derailment in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh resulted in numerous fatalities.
Another notorious incident occurred in 2016, when over 140 people lost their lives in yet another derailment in Uttar Pradesh. These incidents highlight the critical need for ensuring the safety and maintenance of railway infrastructure to prevent such catastrophic events.
Railways Minister Vaishnaw confirmed that the Central Bureau of Investigation has been assigned to investigate the crash that occurred on Friday.
In a gesture of support, authorities have declared compensation of approximately $1,200 to assist families affected by the loss of their loved ones.
While investigations are ongoing, it is clear that no monetary compensation can ever truly compensate for the profound loss of life experienced in this tragic event.
Reflecting on the harrowing accident, Kumar, who tragically lost a dear friend, expressed his gratitude for his own survival.
“I am blessed to have another chance at life,” he remarked, acknowledging the fragility of existence.