Cause of Indian train crash that killed hundreds remains unknown as officials say rescue efforts completed

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NEW DELHI, India —Rescuers ended a search for survivors as the death toll from a train crash that killed almost 300 people and injured hundreds more in one of the worst rail disasters in India's history, officials said.

At least 288 people died on Friday and over 800 were injured when two passenger trains derailed, trapping people under mangled coaches and flipped rail cars, Indian Railways said Saturday afternoon.

Injured passengers were transferred to local hospitals from the crash site in the Balasore district, in the eastern state of Odisha, about 137 miles southwest of Kolkata.

As of Saturday, 1175 patients were admitted to private hospitals and 793 of them have been discharged. Of the remaining 382 in hospitals, two are in critical condition while the rest are stable.


Sudhanshu Sarangi, director of the Odisha fire department, said some survivors were in a serious condition and that the chances of finding more survivors were fading.

"A crane has arrived, we will pull up [train cars] one by one but we don't expect any survivors under them. We are disheartened, we had never seen so many bodies in our life," he said.

Survivors spoke of the horror of the moment of the crash. “It was moving smoothly but suddenly the accident occurred and within a span of 30, 40 seconds we see so many people injured, dead and cries of help everywhere,” Anubhav Das, 27, from Cuttack in Odisha, who was onboard one of the derailed trains, told NBC News.

Prime minister Narendra Modi, who toured the crash site and saw victims in the hospital on Saturday, said those responsible would be held accountable.

"It’s a painful and heartbreaking incident," he said. "Government will leave no stone unturned for the treatment of those injured. The people who have lost lives, can’t be brought back to life, but the government is with their families during these times of grief."

"It’s a serious incident for the government, and instructions have been issued for a probe from every angle," he continued. "Those found guilty will be punished stringently."

Modi commended citizens who "immersed themselves" in assisting with rescue operations following the crash.

"The courage and compassion shown by the people of our nation in the face of adversity is truly inspiring," he tweeted on Saturday. "As soon as the train mishap took place in Odisha, people immersed themselves in assisting rescue ops. Several people lined up to donate blood."

"I commend each and every person belonging to the teams of railways, NDRF, ODRAF, local authorities, police, fire service, volunteers and others who are working tirelessly on the ground and strengthening the rescue ops. Proud of their dedication," he added in another tweet.

Tributes and condolences have poured in from world leaders and religious figures, including the Dalai Lama.

Hundreds of rescuers climbed over debris and cut through mangled steel to free survivors. They were assisted by medical and engineering teams from the Indian armed forces who were routed from multiple bases, an army spokesperson told Indian news agency ANI.

“The restoration work has started from one end, the most important thing right now is to clear the area and stay away from the machines deployed in the restoration process,” he said.

He added that the government would begin an investigation into the “root cause” of the accident.

There were about 1,257 reserved passengers on the Coromandal Express, of which between 10 and 12 cars derailed and 1,039 reserved passengers on the Yashwantpur Express, which crashed into debris from the Coromandal Express and also derailed around 6.55 p.m. (9.25 a.m. ET) on Friday, a government spokesperson told the ANI.

Families of the dead will receive 1 million rupees ($12,000), while the seriously injured will get 200,000 rupees ($2,400), with 50,000 rupees ($607) for minor injuries, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Twitter. Some state governments have also announced compensation.

Previous train accidents have been blamed on human error, or the use of outdated signaling equipment.

“I offer my condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones” said the Dalai Lama in a statement, adding that “as a mark of solidarity” his trust would make a donation to medical treatment and relief efforts.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “The images and reports of the train crash in Odisha, India break my heart. I’m sending my deepest condolences to those who lost loved ones, and I’m keeping the injured in my thoughts. At this difficult time, Canadians are standing with the people of India.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also offered condolences.

India’s worst rail accident up till now happened in August 1995, when two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people.

In November 2016, more than 100 people were killed when 14 coaches of a passenger train rolled off the track in the country’s north.

Ravi Mishra reported from New Delhi and Leila Sackur reported from London.

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