'I grabbed a cable. People were dying on the rails'

Baku disaster: Firemen fear death-toll of 300 could double as an inquiry begins into cause of world's worst metro tragedy
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The Independent Online


Twenty-four hours after it happened, horrifying accounts of the worst underground railway disaster in history yesterday began to reach the outside world from the Caspian oil port of Baku in Azerbaijan, which was mourning the death of at least 300 people.

Survivors described how their fellow passengers on the city's Soviet- style metro system were electrocuted on the tracks, suffocated by poisonous fumes or crushed to death as they struggled to reach a nearby station from a burning train which was stuck in a tunnel.

The tragedy happened on Saturday evening when a packed train stopped between two stations and smoke began to swirl into the carriages, causing widespread panic. Although Baku's metro system has been bombed twice in the last 18 months, the Azeri authorities said last night it was not the work of terrorists but a spark from an overhead cable.

Gennady Nikiferev was among those who survived. He said: "The driver came back and couldn't open the doors. Then the lights went out. After a while we started to suffocate from the smoke, and we realised we had to open the doors.

"The car was packed with people, and when we opened the doors, half the people just fell out on top of each other. We started to run towards Narimanov station. For 100 or 200 metres the whole metro was full of smoke. People were walking and they were all vomiting."

Another passenger, Manish Gurbanov, escaped by climbing through a vent and hauling himself along the roof. "I got through the tunnel by grabbing a cable on the top of the tunnel. But they say a lot of other people were electrocuted. People were dying all over the rails."

Initial reports set the death toll at only two people, but as the rescue operation continued at the weekend, it became clear that it was the worst metro disaster in history - with at least10 times the death toll of London's King's Cross disaster in 1987. Last night police put the number of fatalities at 300 - including 28 children. A further 270 people were being treated for burns and smoke inhalation. But firemen pulling bodies from the wreckage yesterday said the death toll might double.

A commission of inquiry has been set up under Azerbaijan's deputy Prime Minister, Abbas Abbasov, on the orders of the President, Haydar Aliyev.

Mr Abbasov has blamed "outdated Soviet equipment". The Baku metro was built in 1967, one of about 20 underground railways modelled on Stalin's metro system in Moscow. It is small, comprising two lines with 18 stations and 20 miles of track. But although it is less than 30 years old, its equipment is suspect. Itar-Tass news agency yesterday quoted a safety official with Moscow's metro who said that 98 per cent of the materials in the carriages burn easily, and give off poisonous fumes when they do.

A Moscow radio station, Echo Moskvy, quoted sources in Baku saying that the Azeri security services had not excluded the possibility of sabotage. Azerbaijan has been unstable since Mr Aliyev came to power in 1993 after ousting his predecessor, Abulfaz Elcibey, not least because of a long dispute with its neighbour, Armenia.

There have been two attempted coups, in October 1994 and in April this year, and two metro bombings in 18 months. The perpetrators have never been caught, but suspicion rests on the many political enemies of Mr Aliyev, an ex-Soviet KGB officer. The President's opponents are infuriated by the handling of next month's parliamentary elections from which the five main political parties have been banned.