Rescue workers warned last night that the death toll in the world's worst underground railway disaster may rise to more than 300 people, as they continued counting the bodies brought out of a metro train in Baku, Azerbaijan, which caught fire in a tunnel.
Police said that the fire was started by a spark from an old high-voltage wire as a train was travelling between the Ulduz and Narimanov stations.
The authorities in the former Soviet republic said many victims had died from poisonous fumes that filled the packed train, causing panic as hundreds of people fought to break their way out of the carriages and escape along the tracks.
The disaster - which claimed the lives of 28 children - occurred at about 6pm on Saturday when the five-carriage train stopped between the two stations in central Baku, an oil city of 1.8 million people on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. But it was not until yesterday that the scale of the tragedy became known.
Although the Baku metro has been bombed twice in 18 months, officials blamed the fire on the ancient wiring in the run-down system that dates from the Soviet era.
After being plunged into darkness and engulfed in smoke, passengers began to try to claw their way out. "The car was packed with people. When we opened the doors, half the people just fell out on top of each other." said Gennady Nikiferev, a survivor.
Another, Tabil Guseinov, said: "As soon as the train entered the tunnel I saw a flash. Then the flames enveloped the train car, there was a sound of breaking glass, and the lights went out. People started breaking windows to get out. We were starting to suffocate."
The president of Azerbaijan, Haydar Aliyev, has ordered a government inquiry and promised victims' families state compensation of 1 million manats ($220) each. Figures for fatalities differed last night: the Azeri government put the dead at 289; local hospitals said it was 337. But firemen told an Azeri news agency that the figure could be much higher - perhaps near 600.
Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country of 7 million people, began two days of official mourning yesterday. Television and radio programmes were cancelled in favour of sombre music. The Baku metro system, which opened in 1967, is one of about 20 built in the Soviet Union, after Stalin created the Moscow metro. Like some Soviet rail systems, the safety standards are suspect - with wooden carriages and doubtful supervision.
The Baku disaster is far worse than any other in the almost 100-year history of underground railways. The nearest comparison happened in 1903 in Paris when 83 were killed in a fire. On the London Underground, 43 died in the Moorgate crash in 1975, and 31 in the King's Cross fire of 1987.
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