Amritsar train accident: 61 dead as speeding train runs over crowd at Dussehra celebration
Tragedy struck at a Dussehra celebration in Amritsar on Friday when a speeding train ran over a festive crowd that spilled on to the tracks while watching the customary burning of a giant Ravana effigy. At least 61 people were killed and 74 injured in the accident, according to a senior government official.
Hundreds of people were gathered at an open ground near the manned crossing at Joda Phatak, barely 70 metres from the Amritsar-Jalandhar double railway track where the celebrations were happening at around 7.15pm. Navjot Kaur Sidhu, the wife of Congress minister and Amritsar East legislator Navjot Singh Sidhu, was the chief guest at the event.
The crossing, 3km from Amritsar railway station, was closed for vehicular traffic, but people were spread out from the ground to the areas surrounding the tracks on both sides; many of them standing on the tracks.
The track was not cordoned off by the police or the local administration, eyewitnesses alleged. It was not immediately clear if the administration had given permission to hold the festivities so close to a busy railway track.
As the effigy started burning, and firecrackers inside it started going off, many pulled out their phones to capture a video of the scene. The noise and the crowd seemed to have masked the sound of the train approaching Amritsar from Jalandhar. As the train thundered across the track, crushing several revellers, the force was such that bodies were flung in all directions. It took some time for onlookers, even those whose view of the effigy was temporarily blocked by the passing train, to realise what happened.
“We didn’t hear the train coming. It had become dark and everyone was watching the effigy when the train suddenly appeared,” said Mintoo, a migrant labourer staying nearby. Most of the victims are feared to be migrant labourers.
Amritsar sub-divisional magistrate (I) Rajesh Sharma said 61 people were killed and at least 74 admitted to Amritsar hospital. Raveen Thukral, media advisor to chief minister Amarinder Singh, put the number of dead at 40, adding the toll could rise. The chief medical officer at Amritsar Civil hospital said doctors had treated at least 80 injured after the accident.
Leaders across the political spectrum put out condolence messages and a state of mourning was declared in Punjab, where all government institutions will be shut on Saturday.
The state government also announced Rs 5 lakh compensation to the families of the dead, while the Centre announced an addition Rs 2 lakh for grieving families.
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh said he was rushing to the spot to personally supervise rescue and relief operations. “District authorities have been mobilised on war footing,” Singh tweeted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was extremely saddened by the mishap. “The tragedy is heart-wrenching,” he tweeted. “My deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and I pray that the injured recover quickly. Have asked officials to provide immediate assistance that is required.” Railways minister Piyush Goyal cancelled all his engagements in the US and said he was immediately returning to India. “May God give strength to the bereaved and injured. Railways is proving all possible assistance at the site. I have cancelled all engagements in USA and immediately returning back to India,” Goyal tweeted.
Minister of state for railways Manoj Sinha, railway board chairman Ashwani Lohani and northern railway general manager Vishwesh Chaube, too were rushing to the spot. Union home minister Rajnath Singh announced all possible assistance by the Centre.
Railways issued helpline numbers — 0183-2223171, 0183-2564485 — for information on the incident.
Some leaders also blamed the Congress government in Punjab for alleged lapses that led to the deaths. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley told news agency ANI that initial reports suggested it was a tragedy that could have been avoided. Union minister and Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the onus was on the state government. “There are not enough words to mourn the Amritsar train tragedy that claims so many innocent lives. My deepest condolences to the families who lost their loved ones. The incident needs to be probed as it casts serious question on administration,” she tweeted.
The event close to tracks near Amritsar was a “clear case of trespassing” and no permission was given by the railways, a senior official told PTI.
“We’re not kept in the loop and we provided no permission for the event. It is a clear case of trespassing and the local administration should take responsibility,” the railway official said.
Amid questions being raised in some quarters about why the train did not stop despite such a large crowd being there, the official said, “There was so much smoke that the driver was unable to see anything and he was also negotiating a curve.”
As the state government faced criticism, Navjot Kaur Sidhu talked to the media at a hospital where the injured were taken. “We should not politicise the tragedy. Our priority is to help those in the hospital and provide compensation to the family who have died in the tragedy,” she said.
(With agency inputs)