Khatauli (Uttar Pradesh): Men and women, young and old, Hindus and Muslims... Khatauli rose as one when the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed with hundreds of people rushing to rescue passengers trapped in mangled coaches.
As the screams of those injured broke the Saturday evening calm of this otherwise laidback town, about 100 km from the national capital in Muzaffarnagar district, people tirelessly ferried water and food for the rescuers and others.
Manoj Baliyan, whose house was just across the tracks, heard the loud crunch of metal and the screams of the people.
One end of the mangled S-2 coach had climbed atop another carriage and crashed into his house.
It was carefully pulled away on Sunday evening by the railways restoration team, capping 24 hours of a nightmare that people thought would never end.
"The people were in great pain and crying, 'Save me, Save me' and 'God, help us'. We had never seen something like this before. The sight was terrifying," he said.
All he could see was a mangled coach that had rammed into the front of the house and bodies outside, along the track.
Notwithstanding his own trauma, Baliyan gathered his wits and got down to the task of rescuing who he could.
"In a few minutes, we saw the tracks splattered with blood. Some of the passengers were left perilously caged in mangled train coaches. They were crying in agony. We took small cutting equipment, whatever we could manage, in a short time and went to help them," he said.
Mukesh, a relative of Baliyan, added, "We survived by god's grace. If the train had gone through our house, we would have all got buried."
Locals like Baliyan and Mukesh were the first to respond to the crisis. They spent a sleepless night, saving lives where they could and providing succour to not just the passengers. They brought endless cups of tea and refreshments for the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel and the government officials.
If some brought food, others took on the job of guiding traffic.
"The day the accident took place, people from all parts of the town flocked to the site. It was a massive crowd. You could see hundreds of people, stretching as far as the eye could see, on both sides of the accident site," said Manoj.
And just one symbol of unity in the town in the hours of suffering following the derailment of 13 coaches and the pantry car of the train, killing 22 people and injuring 156, were the people of Jagat Colony and Islamabad village.
The Hindus of the former and the Muslims of the latter joined hands to rescue the injured, becoming a shining symbol of harmony and unity in the hour of distress.
"I was away when the tragedy struck. My sons immediately rushed to the site and helped in rescuing people. We are praying for the well-being of the injured. It's a tragedy that has left us overwhelmed. No one in our family or colony has slept a wink," said Nuruddin, who runs a sweet shop in Khatauli.
Sumir Kumar, a labourer, was returning from work when he heard a deafening thud.
"My friend and I were returning from work when we realised what had happened. We went there with cutters and soon many people rushed to the site, with gas cylinders to help in cutting the mangled coach," he said.
On Sunday afternoon, a group of nuns from the nearby St. Thomas Church visited the site of the accident.
People trickled in from neighbouring Meerut too, some brought food, while others medicine, which they distributed at the hospital.
Updated Date: Aug 21, 2017 19:28 PM