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At least 70 killed after fire sweeps through Pakistani passenger train

Rescue workers gather beside the burnt-out train carriages after a passenger train caught on fire near Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab province on October 31, 2019.
Rescue workers gather beside the burnt-out train carriages after a passenger train caught on fire near Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab province on October 31, 2019. AFP

A fire swept through a Pakistani train on Thursday killing at least 74 people after a gas canister passengers were using to cook breakfast exploded, the minister for railways said. 

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The fire destroyed three of the train's carriages near the town of Rahim Yar Khan in the south of Punjab province. It was on its way from the southern city of Karachi to Rawalpindi, near the capital, with many people going to a religious conference.

Pakistani Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed first put the death toll at 64, but later raised it to 74. Kaleem Ullah, an official with the district emergency services, said that of the more than 40 people injured, some were in critical condition.

"Two stoves blew up when people were cooking breakfast, the presence of kerosene with the passengers in (the) moving train further spread the fire," Ahmed said. "Most deaths occurred from people jumping off the train," he added. People sneaking stoves onto trains in order to prepare meals on long journeys is a common problem, he said.

‘People were jumping off, some of them were on fire’

Survivors recounted horrific scenes of fellow passengers screaming as they jumped through the windows and off the train, flames billowing from the carriages. "We could hear people crying and screaming for help," said Chaudhry Shujaat who had boarded the train just a few hours earlier with his wife and two children. "I thought we would die. The next car was on fire. We felt so helpless."

Television pictures showed fire and black smoke pouring from the train's windows after it came to a stop on a stretch of line flanked by fields. Survivors said it took the train nearly 20 minutes to come to a halt after the fire broke out and passengers began screaming for help. Some pulled at emergency cords that weave through the train to notify the conductor.

"People were jumping off, some of them were on fire," a witness told Geo. Many of the passengers were heading to a conference organised by the Tablighi Jamaat Sunni Muslim missionary movement, he said.

The train was on its way from the southern port city of Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province, to the garrison city of Rawalpindi when the blaze erupted, said Ahmed, the deputy commissioner.

Pakistan's military said troops were also participating in the rescue operation. President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan issued statements expressing their sorrow over the tragedy.

Khan took to Twitter to offer his condolences to the families of those killed and say he was praying for the speedy recovery of the injured. He also ordered an urgent investigation into the incident.

Poor infrastructure and official negligence

Train accidents in Pakistan are often the result of poor railway infrastructure and official negligence. Media reports on Thursday suggest that railways officials did not notice when passengers boarded the train, carrying individual gas stoves.

Eleven people were killed in an accident in July and four in another accident in September. About 130 people were killed in 2005 when a train rammed into another at a station in Sindh province, and a third train hit the wreckage.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS & AP)
 

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