Hampi Express rams into stationary goods train, killing 25
Penukonda is a junction between South Central and South Western Railway, and is critical to traffic going towards Bangalore from the north
T S Sudhir
16591 Hampi Express that runs between Hubli and Bangalore, is not a train people usually board to get off at Penukonda railway station. Which is why when the train was steaming into this sleepy railway station in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh at 3:20 am on Tuesday morning, just about everyone was fast asleep.
Till disaster struck.
It is not confirmed yet if it was a case of signalling error or whether the two drivers were sleepy and not vigilant enough and ended up overshooting the signal. Whatever the cause, Hampi Express broke the stillness of the night when it rammed straight into a stationary goods train parked at Penukonda station, 147 km from Bangalore.
The dead of night is a weird time to be chivalrous and say `Ladies First' but that is precisely what happened, tragically. The first compartment after the engine was occupied by women passengers, who suffered the brunt of the collision. A short circuit that ensued engulfed the bogie in flames and smoke, making escape difficult for the bleary-eyed. The impact resulted in the doors getting distorted, making it impossible to open them. The lights went off and in that pitch darkness, women fell over each other, everyone looking to escape a disastrous situation.
Since the accident happened at the railway station, help arrived quick. But in what is typical of the way things operate in most non-metro parts of India, the fire engine from Penukonda did not have adequate water to put off the fire in the first compartment. Water tanks were brought in. Fire engines from neighbouring towns like Hindupur, Dharmavaram and Madakasira took 45 minutes more to arrive. In hindsight, if the Penukonda fire engine was not poorly maintained, at least a few lives could have been saved.
Durga Das, Anantapur district collector said the 108 ambulance and medical teams did reach early but even by then, it was too late since many people had been burnt to death in the first bogie. “It took a while to put out the flames and the smoke. Mangled sheets of metal and the heat made rescue efforts difficult. We used gas cutting equipment and metal cutting devices to extricate the bodies trapped inside the bogie,” he said.
Many passengers complained that the sudden impact threw luggage and people on top of each other, causing injuries and suffocation. Many of those trapped, even though they were conscious and realised something had gone drastically wrong, were not in a position to pull themselves out of the train. When the doors were finally opened, many of the passengers jumped out of the train on to the sharp stones that dot the railway tracks, suffering injuries.
At the Penukonda and Hindupur government hospitals, as also Sathya Sai Baba Ashram-owned hospital, several passengers arrived with broken limbs. They could still count themselves lucky because those who couldn't make that leap to relative safety, suffered severe burns. And at least eleven of them charred beyond recognition in that first compartment.
16-year-old Rani, who was travelling to Bangalore to spend her summer vacation there was one of those in the ill-fated bogie. “The compartment was full. The fire came from the engine side and we all rushed to the other side to make our escape,” recalled Rani.
While the first three bogies derailed, the third compartment—a second class sleeper—was badly mangled. Most of the passengers in this bogie were labourers travelling from Bellary, Hubli, Hospet and Gadag in north Karnataka to Bangalore.
Anantapur Range DIG Charu Sinha said, “The first bogie almost went over the engine. The second bogie passengers escaped miraculously but the third bogie suffered a lot of impact. There was a slight delay in arranging for equipment like gas cutters but in terms of coordination between the police, railways and district officials, it was good team work.”
Penukonda is a junction between South Central and South Western Railway, and is critical to traffic going towards Bangalore from the north. A little after noon, traffic was restored on one line, even as work continued on lifting and cutting the first burnt bogie with the help of a crane and cutters. This was necessary as metal in the compartment had melted due to the fire and rescue officials wanted to make sure no charred bodies were under the bogie.
Railway officials now say both drivers—Yesu and Balraj—who are in a state of shock, are being treated. Their version will be critical in investigating what caused them to drive 25 passengers to a horrible death and left at least 74 injured. Durga Das said prime facie it appeared that the drivers rushed into Penukonda railway station without waiting for signal clearance.
To the credit of the district officials, several men and whatever machines were available were put into action much before daybreak happened to rescue those trapped. But as it happens with most accidents in India, VIP visits to the site meant a significant part of the constabulary and senior babudom had to shift their focus away from rescue and relief work to attend to the politicians. In this case, the number was higher, since political bigwigs from both Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, apart from Railways minister Mukul Roy descended on Penukonda.