‘I had to pick my way through a sea of bodies’: India train crash death toll reaches 120

Rescue workers rushed to the scene near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh state where the Patna-Indore express train derailed in the early hours of the morning.

Rescue workers search for survivors at the site of a train derailment in Pukhrayan, south of Kanpur city. Jitendra Prakash / Reuters
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LUCKNOW, INDIA // Emergency workers raced to find any more survivors in the mangled wreckage of an Indian train that derailed on Sunday, killing at least 120 people, in the worst disaster to hit the country’s ageing rail network in recent years.

Shocked passengers told of being jolted out of their early morning slumber by a violent thud at around 3.10am local time as 14 carriages leapt from the tracks in a remote area near Kanpur city in Uttar Pradesh state.

“My 12-year-old daughter is missing, I have been looking for her for hours,” a survivor said at the accident site, breaking into uncontrollable sobs.

“My wife has received serious head injuries and I have lost all my belongings. I am feeling so helpless, my whole world has turned upside down.”

Police said 120 people had been killed and at least 200 others were undergoing treatment in nearby hospitals, which were placed on high alert after the early morning disaster.

But the death toll was expected to rise further as rescue workers had yet to gain access to one of the worst-damaged coaches, said Daljeet Chaudhary, a director general of police.

Survivors and bodies were retrieved from mangled coaches that had fallen on their side.

Sreshth Shah escaped unharmed but had to pick his way out of the debris “away from a sea of dead bodies”.

He had boarded the Indore-Patna Express with a friend at Bhopal late on Saturday evening and was planning to get a night of sleep before disembarking at his destination in Lucknow.

"Ours was probably the only carriage that didn't overturn," he told The National.

“The carriage in front of us and the carriage behind us both overturned,” said Shah, a Bengaluru-based journalist with ESPN Cricinfo, the cricket website.

They were shepherded along with other survivors to the nearest station, Pukhrayan, an hour away from the city of Kanpur. But even as they were walking away, Shah said he was certain, looking at the debris, that hundreds would have died or been grievously injured.

“I couldn’t help but keep thinking of all those who were travelling with us, who were injured or had died,” Shah said, deeply shaken.

Ramchandra Tewari, a passenger who suffered a head injury, said he was asleep when he was suddenly flung to the floor of his coach.

“There was a loud sound like an earthquake. I fell from my berth and a lot of luggage fell over me,” Mr Tewari said from his hospital bed in Kanpur. “I thought I was dead, and then I passed out.”

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “anguished beyond words” by the loss of life.

Anguished beyond words on the loss of lives due to the derailing of the Patna-Indore express. My thoughts are with the bereaved families.

The impact of the derailment was so strong that one of the coaches landed on top of another, crushing the one below, said Brig Anurag Chibber, who was heading the army’s rescue team.

“We have been able to pull out 24 people so far, out of which five were found to be alive,” he said adding that “we fear there could be many more dead in the lower coach”.

“We will carry on day and night, till there is any inkling of even a single person being pulled alive.”

Accidents are relatively common on India’s sprawling rail network, which is the world’s third largest but lacks modern signalling and communication systems. Most accidents are blamed on poor maintenance and human error.

In 2014, an express train ploughed into a stationary freight train, also in Uttar Pradesh, killing 26 people.

Mr Modi’s government has pledged to invest US$137 billion (Dh503bn) over five years to modernise its crumbling railways, making them safer, faster and more efficient.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press, with additional reporting from Samanth Subramaniam