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Rescue efforts ended Saturday for India’s deadliest rail crash in over two decades, which left at least 288 people dead and 900 more injured, officials said Saturday.
Rescuers desperately combed through the wreckage and climbed atop the wrecked trains to burn open doors and windows using cutting torches searching for any signs of life after a passenger train went off the tracks and slammed into another one Friday night about 137 miles southwest of Kolkata in eastern India.
A possible signal error led to the crash, according to a preliminary government report seen by Reuters.
“Families crushed away, limbless bodies and a bloodbath on the tracks,” said surviving passenger Anubha Das.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the night into early Saturday morning.
Scores of bodies, covered by white sheets, lay on the ground near the tracks while locals and rescuers raced to free hundreds trapped inside the rail cars under the metal remains and shattered glass.
Army soldiers and air force helicopters joined the effort.
But after an extensive search-and-rescue — which included hundreds of fire department personnel, police officers, and National Disaster Response Force teams as well as sniffer dogs — authorities ended the rescue operation.
Workers also started clearing debris to restore rail traffic.
“By 10 p.m. [on Friday] we were able to rescue the survivors. After that it was about picking up dead bodies,” Sudhanshu Sarangi, director of Odisha state’s fire and emergency department, told The Associated Press. “This is very, very tragic. I have never seen anything like this in my career.”
Families of the dead will receive 1 million rupees ($12,000), and the seriously injured will get 200,000 rupees, with 50,000 rupees for minor injuries, according to Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.
The collision occurred around 7 p.m. local time Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express from Bengaluru to Howrah in West Bengal hit the Coromandel Express from Kolkata to Chennai.
The accident occurred at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is focusing on modernizing the British colonial-era railroad network in India, which has become the world’s most populous country with 1.42 billion.
Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world.
Modi flew to the crash site and spent half an hour examining relief efforts while talking to rescue leaders.
He was also seen giving instructions on the phone to officials in New Delhi.
Modi on Saturday was supposed to inaugurate a high-speed train connecting Goa and Mumbai that is equipped with a collision avoidance system.
However, the festivities were canceled after Friday’s accident.
The trains that derailed did not have that system.
Amitabh Sharma, a Railroad Ministry spokesperson, said the rescue work was near completion.
Rail authorities will start removing the wreckage to repair the track and resume train operations, he said.
Indian Railways transports more than 13 million people every day, but the state-run agency has had a shady safety record because of decaying infrastructure.
Modi’s administration has launched high-speed trains as part of plans to modernize the network, but critics say it has not focused enough on safety and upgrading its aging infrastructure.
India’s deadliest railway accident was in 1981 when a train plunged off a bridge into a river in Bihar state, killing an estimated 800 people.
With Post wires