‘Wailing for help’: passengers and bystanders tell of India train crash horror

Relatives tell of agony of searching for survivors among what one called ‘heaps of bodies’ as rescue activities draw to a close

The carriages from three trains sat piled high in an entangled wreck. Some lay sideways, while others had been thrown so high into the air on impact that they had fallen back to earth twisted and upside down.

A line of dozens of bodies covered in white sheets were laid out next to the wreckage waiting for vehicles – ambulances, local cars, even tractors – to take them away to local hospitals. Passengers’ possessions lay scattered around them, shoes and toys and thrown-open suitcases.

This was the aftermath of the deadliest train crash in India in more than two decades, when on Friday evening the Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata in West Bengal to Chennai in Tamil Nadu, switched rails and collided with a freight train in the eastern state of Odisha close to Bahanagar Bazar station, while travelling at around 80mph (130km/h).

The freight train in turn derailed some carriages of the Howrah Superfast Express train, which was travelling in the opposite direction. More than 2,000 passengers were aboard both trains.

Thousands took part in the rescue operation, which saw the National Disaster Response Force, state government teams, the air force, fire department personnel, police officers and sniffer dogs brought in to pull survivors from the chaos of twisted metal and broken glass, working in sweltering heat.

As the rescue operation drew to a close on Saturday evening, the death toll stood at 288, with 803 injured, according to a railway authority statement.

The prime minister, Narendra Modi, declared that Saturday was a day of mourning for the country and that compensation of £10,000 would be given for each of those who died.

Modi flew to the the site on Saturday afternoon and met the injured in hospitals, stating afterwards that “words can’t capture my deep sorrow”. He vowed that “those found guilty will be severely punished”.

The railway minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was facing calls for his resignation, had surveyed the wreckage earlier in the day and promised a high-level investigation, including into whether a signalling failure had caused the crash.

World leaders including the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, were among those who offered their condolences over the incident.

In a tweet, Sunak said his “thoughts and prayers were with Narendra Modi and all those affected by the tragic events in Odisha”.

Rescue workers around damaged carriages
Rescue workers including soldiers gather around damaged carriages at the accident site. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty

Relatives of those on board the trains rushed to the site and began frantically looking through the bodies trying to find their loved ones. Among them was Rabindra Shau, 53, who was looking for his son Govinda, who had boarded the Coromandel Express in Shalimar.

“Please help me find my son. At least help me with his dead body,” he shouted as he turned over bodies lying near the twisted carriages.

Sheikh Zakir Hussain, 35, from West Bengal, said he was trying to get news of his older brother Abdul Sheikh, his nephew, Mehraj Sheikh, 22, and three of his neighbours, who had all boarded a train near Shalimar and were heading to Chennai for work.

Rescue workers freeing survivors
Rescue workers and soldiers work to free survivors and bodies from the wreckage. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty

“Since the time I heard the news of the accident, I called my brother and nephew, but their phones were switched off,” he said. “I came early in the morning and have been since going from one hospital to another, but there is no trace of them.

“I even went to the spot and saw heaps of bodies lying there. I saw the faces of more than 100 dead people, but could not find my brother, nephew or my neighbours.”

As hospitals ran out of room for the dead, Bahanaga high school was turned into a makeshift morgue, with hundreds of bodies piled up waiting to be identified by their relatives. Another temporary morgue was set up in a nearby industrial estate.

In the school hall, desperate friends and relatives could be seen going from one body bag to the next, uncovering the faces to check the identities of the dead. According to an official, over 200 bodies had yet to be claimed by Saturday evening.

“The challenge now is identifying the bodies,” said state official PK Jena. “Wherever the relatives are able to provide evidence, the bodies are handed over after autopsies. If not identified, maybe we have to go for a DNA test and other protocols.”


Toton Sekh also ran to the site on Saturday morning to look for his nephew, Abu Taher Shekh, 24, from Basanti in West Bengal, who had been travelling to Chennai to work. He said the scene of the crash resembled a hellscape with “piles of dead bodies kept in a school”.

He said officials had not been able to locate his nephew and he couldn’t find him in any hospitals. “The officials said some bodies were still lying trapped inside the damaged train coaches and it would take some time to extricate them all,” he said.

“I am still searching for him. We are praying that he is somehow found alive somewhere.”

Rescue worker
A rescue worker pauses in his search for survivors. Photograph: Piyal Adhikary/EPA

Those who had been on board described the horror of the aftermath of the crash, in which at least 17 carriages were derailed.

One survivor said he had been asleep and was woken as his carriage derailed. “Some 10 to 15 people fell over me,” he told an Indian news channel. “I injured my hand and neck. When I got out of the train, I saw limbs scattered all around, a leg here, a hand there. Someone’s face was disfigured.”

Sayantani Ghosh, who was in coach A-1 of the Coromandel Express with her 11-year-old daughter, said she was lucky to be alive. She described how they were thrown out of their seats by a heavy jerk and then a “thunderous sound” came from one end of their coach when an adjacent carriage crashed on top of theirs.

“The impact was so massive that two toilets of our coach were completely flattened,” she said. “From the adjacent coaches, we heard people screaming for help and crying loudly. Horrifying scenes from last evening keep flashing before my eyes. I cannot get it off my mind. I am still in a trauma.”

Wrecked carriages are strewn across the tracks after the crash
Wrecked carriages are strewn across the tracks after the crash. Photograph: National Disaster Response Force/EPA

Local people who heard the screech of brakes and the sound of the trains colliding rushed to the scene and worked to pull passengers from the wreckage. Many later joined the official rescue operation.

However, some of the injured reported that there had also been looting at the scene; the luggage, wallets and valuables of the dead and injured were taken by groups who descended on the site soon after the collision.

“Some villagers picked up some of those unattended bags and ran away in the darkness,” said Ghosh. “This was shocking. They stole the valuables of the people who were victims of the accident.”

Nearby hospitals and health centres were overrun with the dead and injured, and medical personnel struggled to keep up with the scale of the disaster. Hundreds of local people were seen queueing up outside the hospitals to donate blood.

Dr Mrutunjay Mishra, a medical officer at Balasore district headquarters hospital, said his staff had worked through the night after over 250 patients had flooded into their wards at once. “I have been in the profession for many decades, but have never seen such chaos in my life,” he said.

Another doctor at SCB medical college and hospital in Cuttak said: “Some have lost their limbs and many have serious injuries across their bodies,. Around 20 injured people who were brought to me passed away while we were trying to treat them.

“The hospital is flooded with the injured. They are lying on the floor. We are rushing from one patient to another. I just managed to attend to the wounds of a small girl child – she is doing well. But we have no idea about her parents.”

Shaikh Azizur Rahman contributed reporting from Kolkata


Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Aakash Hassan

The GuardianTramp

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