Amritsar train tragedy: 59 dead; Amarinder Singh announces Rs 5 lakh compensation for kin of deceased

A speeding train on its way from Pathankot to Amritsar smashed into a massive crowd on the railway tracks watching a burning Ravana effigy during Dussehra fireworks in Punjab's Amritsar on Friday at around 7 pm local time, killing at least 59 people and injuring 100 at last count. Outrage and sadness poured out as video clips surfaced of the gut wrenching moment when the train rams into the crowd - almost at the exact moment when the Ravana effigy erupts into a huge ball of flame in the distance, just across the tracks.

The site of the accident - Joda Phatak near Dhobi Ghat - is nearly 465 kilometers north of New Delhi. Many of those killed were migrant workers who lived in the slums skirting the railway tracks. Chaotic scenes are playing out at the Civil Hospital in Amritsar into the early hours of Saturday morning. "Bodies of many victims including little children are lying on the floor as there is no place to keep them", reads a grim despatch from 101 Reporters. Friday's was among the deadliest train accident in recent years. In 2016, 146 people were killed when a train slid off railroad tracks in eastern India.

PTI is reporting that two trains arrived from opposite directions on separate tracks at the same time giving little opportunity for people to escape. However, the casualties were caused by one of the trains. Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has ordered an inquiry into the accident and announced immediate compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of those killed. Navjot Kaur Siddhu, a local Congress party politician who was the chief guest at the religious function, said the celebrations take place in the area every year and railroad authorities are alerted to run the trains at slow speeds. One of the people who escaped unhurt but lost "two brothers" said the train didn't sound its whistle as it sped past.

At least 61people were killed in the Amritsar train accident. Image courtesy: Arjun Sharma/101Reporters

At least 61 people were killed in the Amritsar train accident. Image courtesy: Arjun Sharma/101Reporters

"Why did authorities allow the fireworks display so close to the railroad track?," he told a TV station. he asked. Another witness said victims didn't realize that a train was coming because the noise from the fireworks and the crowd drowned out the sound of the approaching train. Amarinder Singh, scheduled to leave for Israel on Friday evening, postponed his trip and will fly to Amritsar Saturday morning to meet families of the victims. The Punjab government also ordered state mourning; all offices and educational institutions will remain closed on Saturday. A crisis management group under Punjab health minister Brahm Mohindra has been set up to monitor relief and rehabilitation efforts. According to Raveen Thukral, media advisor to the chief minister, initial reports suggested the incident occurred during a stampede, as people rushed towards the tracks when crackers went off during 'Ravana dahan'. A railway official said in New Delhi that the drop gates at the spot were down but people still crowded on the tracks in violation of railway rules.

Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has cancelled all his engagements in the US where he is currently visiting and is returning to India.

Locals blame authorities; Congress government faces flak
A local resident alleged that the Dussehra celebrations were organised by forcing the local administration to grant permission near the railway tracks. He said the administration had not granted permission in 2017 for the use of this venue for Dussehra celebrations owing to its proximity to the tracks. Some people blamed Local Bodies Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu's wife Navjot Kaur, who was the chief guest at the celebrations, saying her late arrival delayed the burning of the effigy by more than half an hour. Reacting to the row surrounding his wife's presence at the event, Sidhu said: "My wife is visiting the injured at the hospital. One should understand that nobody intentionally causes such incidents. I urge people to not politicise the issue. At this time, everyone needs to come together and share the grief." Navjot Kaur said the railways should have ensured that trains slow down near that section of the track during Dussehra celebrations. "Every year, Dussehra celebrations take place there." she said. Union minister and Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the entire onus was on the state government.

Congress MP from Amritsar Gurjeet Singh Aujla said that a probe will be conducted into the incident. "Action will be taken against those found guilty, even if it is Navjot Kaur Sidhu," he was quoted as saying by ANI. BJP leader and Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said the initial reports suggest it was a tragedy that could have been avoided. Some Opposition leaders also alleged that the event was organised by the Congress. Former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal demanded an inquiry by a retired high court judge to fix responsibility and punish the guilty. President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed condolences over the tragedy.

The prime minister announced Rs 2 lakh compensation to the families of the dead and Rs 50,000 to the injured.

Train services affected

All services on Jalandhar-Amritsar route remained suspended three hours after the incident, a railway official told PTI. While some trains are being diverted, many are stationed near Jalandhar, he said.

Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha told reporters in New Delhi that medical teams are rushing to the spot. "I am also leaving for the site of the accident. As per initial information, people present near the railway track couldn't hear the sound of the approaching train due to bursting of crackers," he told before leaving for Amritsar.

The railways has issued helpline numbers: 01832223171 and 01832564485.
Telephone numbers at Manawala station are 0183-2440024, 0183-2402927 and Ferozpur's helpline number is 01632-1072.

With inputs from Agencies and 101 Reporters


Updated Date: Oct 20, 2018 10:25 AM