At least 131 people were killed in eastern India after two passenger trains derailed in an accident that also involved a collision with a freight train, according to officials, while hundreds remained trapped in mangled carriages.
The accident on Friday in Odisha state’s Balasore district left 850 people injured who were sent to hospital, said Pradeep Jena, the state’s top civil servant.
The vast search-and-rescue operation, which involved hundreds of fire department personnel, police, doctors and sniffer dogs, was expected to last through the night and concerns remained that the number of casualties would rise.
Jena described it as a “violent and tragic accident involving three trains — two passenger trains and one goods train.”
Search teams were looking for 200 passengers who are feared to be trapped, and were cutting through the debris to reach them. Footage showed dozens of people on top of the overturned carriages, as rescuers used cutters and performed the delicate task of extricating survivors from the coaches’ twisted metal.
Jena said 500-600 rescue workers were at the site, along with 50 teams of doctors, 200 ambulances and 30-40 buses to take the survivors to other locations.
“The operation will continue the entire night. We hope that the entire rescue and relief operation will be completed before morning,” he told reporters, adding that cranes, tower lights and hydraulic lifts were being used.
The cause of the accident was being investigated, said Amitabh Sharma, a spokesperson for the Indian Railways. The details of the accident were not immediately clear, nor was the sequence of events.
The Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata in the east to Chennai in southern India, derailed at about 7pm (13:30 GMT), with several carriages falling onto the opposite track, local reports said. Another passenger train, the Yashwantpur-Howrah Superfast Express, coming from the opposite direction is believed to have hit the overturned carriages.
The two passenger trains “had an active involvement in the accident” while “the third train, a goods train, which was parked at the site, also got [involved] in the accident,” Sharma told the AFP news agency.
There was no official confirmation of the total number of passengers on the trains.
Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is expected to visit the area on Saturday, said the priority was “removing the living to the hospitals. That’s our first concern – to look after the living.”
One survivor narrated his nightmare as he was jolted awake when the carriage he was sleeping in overturned.
“My sleep broke and 10-15 people fell on top of me,” he told reporters, as he sat on the ground in the dark, steps away from the crash site. “I hurt my hand and neck … I saw someone had lost their hand, someone had lost their leg … I got out of there and since then I have been sitting here.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that rescue operations were under way and “all possible assistance” was being given to those affected.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was rushing to the site of the crash, tweeted: “Will take all hands required for the rescue ops.”
Vaishnaw also announced compensation of about one million rupees ($12,000) to the families of those killed, $2,400 for those who had suffered “grievous” injuries, and $600 to people with “minor” injuries.
Several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, with most of them blamed on human error or outdated signalling equipment.
More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, travelling on 64,000km (40,000 miles) of track.