100,000 roll up to see rail crash scene

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The Independent Online
THEY HADN'T quite put on the their Sunday best, but the village women in their lurid pink and lime green saris, and the Bengali men in their pale-blue checked lungis were making an effort for the occasion.

Their black umbrellas held aloft against the glaring sun or hooked over their arms, the jostling crowd of onlookers - 100,000 strong - might have been watching a cricket match rather than one of India's worst rail disasters of recent times.

"The problem is that the scale of the accident leads people to mistake this as entertainment," said the district magistrate, Prashant, who uses only one name. "You push them back, but they return. You can't beat them, they're just curious. You can't blame them for that."

If there was anyone to blame for the hordes of sightseers it was Laloo Prasad Yadav, the populist former chief minister of neighbouring Bihar, who had come to look a few hours earlier.

Along the highway that flanks the rail track the air was heavy with the unmistakable, sickly-sweet stench of rotting corpses still being pulled from the twisted wreckage more than 30 hours after disaster stuck. According to Mr Prashant 260 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage and 50 more could be trapped inside.

Mr Prashant said there were no sounds from the wreckage to indicate survivors. "It is a hopeless case as there are no cries for help," he said.

There were 30 or so more bodies lined up at various places along the track, a charred hand or face contorted in a silent staring scream poking grotesquely from beneath their white sheets.

The brown and bloated arm or woman's leg still trapped and dangled from a wagon which had been ripped open and crumpled like a discard beer can. Rescuers had little choice but to leave them, grim reminders of the ferocity of the crash, until the jigsaw could be dismantled piece by painstaking piece.

But, and perhaps as haunting in its way, was the day-to-day detritus of lives that had been ended at 1.53am on Monday morning.

Alongside a blue wagon which sported only hard bench seats lay a pink soap box flanked by a shaving brush. Nylon holdalls bearing fake Nike flashes lay torn apart, cheap clothing spread across the grass.

Various officials were pressed into service for the day. Scraps of paper bearing stamps on their shirts were the only insignia that indicated their role. They held back the hordes with bamboo batons while soldiers from the Border Security Force picked through the remains of dead colleagues, killed as they returned on home leave.

A Private in neatly pressed fatigues flipped almost absent-mindedly through a letter he had found lying beside a bedroll and seven highly-polished army boots which appeared to have been gathered up.

As he put it down an envelope nearby showed that it had been addressed to Sri (Mr) Dillip Kumar Rai. The little collection also contained two blonde girls dolls, still in their plastic wrapping. In the hair of one of the dolls was a soldier's name tag. Perhaps the letter had been the last to a father, or brother.

Mr Prashant was compassionate for the soldiers: "These are just people looking for their colleagues. Brothers looking for brothers."

And in Delhi, India's Railway Minister Nitish Kumar handed in his resignation, taking moral responsibility for a head-on collision. The disaster, he said was the result of "criminal negligence" by railway staff.

"From whatever I saw at the accident site and from my inquiries at the spot it is clear that it is the failure of the railways," Mr Kumar said.

The Awadh-Assam Express, bound for Assam, collided with the Delhi-bound Brahmaputra Mail train after racing along the wrong track for between five and nine miles.

Both trains were travelling at about 55 miles per hour when they collided.