Mirpurkhas, Pakistan, Nov 1 – Distraught relatives gathered Friday for the funerals of some of the 74 people killed when fire ripped through a crowded train in Pakistan, with many of the victims residents of a single town.
Sobbing family members crowded a government building in Mirpurkhas overnight as the first bodies covered in white cloth began arriving by ambulance from the scene of the disaster.
After morning prayers, with women watching from nearby rooftops, more than a hundred men attended the first funeral — of a car mechanic named Mohammad Saleem, who was in his late 40s.
It was held at the Bismillah Mosque, from which at least 42 pilgrims had left to board the train one day earlier, bound for a religious festival near Lahore.
According to officials, as some of the passengers cooked breakfast around dawn on Thursday two of their gas cylinders exploded, sending flames racing through three carriages as the train passed near Rahim Yar Khan, in Punjab province.
At least 74 people died, some after jumping through windows on the still-moving train to escape the blaze.
Rescue officials found bodies and some injured passengers along a two-kilometre stretch of track, Dawn newspaper reported.
The train was a daily express service that runs between the southern port city of Karachi and Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad.
Trains on that route can reportedly hit speeds of up to 110 kilometres (68 miles) per hour. Local media said that the speed may have helped fan the flames.
Journalists were allowed inside the interior of the carriages early Friday. The fire appeared to have burned them entirely, with virtually no space visible that was not blackened and charred.
One of them — Wagon No.12 — was carrying mainly people from Mirpurkhas, the town’s deputy commissioner, Attaullah Shah, told AFP.
“There was never such a tragic incident to happen to Mirpurkhas,” he said.
Mirpurkhas commissioner Abdul Waheed Sheikh said ten of the bodies had been confirmed as being residents of the town so far.
Twenty-four Mirpurkhas residents were among the injured.
But at least another 45 are still missing, he said.
Officials in Rahim Yar Khan have said many of the bodies are charred beyond recognition and will have to be identified through DNA testing — a process that could take up to one month.
Shah said the government was arranging to send families of the missing from Mirpurkhas to the hospital in Rahim Yar Khan where the bodies have been taken.
– ‘Mistake’ –
Mirpurkhas, a town of some half a million people surrounded by farms and mango orchards, was largely shut down Friday as businesses closed in mourning.
“These were such people that we can not ever forget them,” Mohammad Anwar, the 57-year-old headmaster of a government school, told AFP at the Bismillah Mosque.
He said that among the missing was his nephew, as well as the mosque’s imam. Most of those who left from the mosque had known one another or lived nearby.
Mahmood Iqbal wept outside his home as he told AFP how his two sons were missing, one son-in-law was killed, and one brother-in-law was wounded.
When he looks at his grandsons, he said, he “can’t hold my tears”.
“I am praying to Allah, that they might come back from nowhere. I am waiting for a miracle,” he said.
Yawar Hussain came to the deputy commissioner’s office overnight in the hope of finding his brother Mohsin, 20.
Clutching a photograph of his brother posing in a starched beige shalwar kameez and sunglasses, the 23-year-old described rushing home after hearing of the accident.
“I consoled my father, and my mother and sisters were crying,” he said.
Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where the railways have seen decades of decline due to corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment.
Gas cylinders are supposedly banned on trains. Pakistan’s railways minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed said Thursday it had been a “mistake” to allow the cylinders on board, and Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered an inquiry.
But criticism, particularly of Ahmed, was growing as observers said there have been more than 70 railway accidents in the past year, including several major fatal ones.
Sabir Hussain Kaimkhani, a member of the National Assembly’s railways committee, told AFP the accident rate has increased “due to negligence”.
Kaimkhani said that alarm systems and emergency brakes in many trains are missing or broken, and that passenger carriages do not carry fire extinguishers.
Ahmed, who has refused to step down, denies the allegations and says the train in Thursday’s tragedy stopped when someone pulled an emergency brake.