Lahore, October 31: A massive fire broke out on a train in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province on Thursday after two gas cylinders exploded while some pilgrims were cooking breakfast, killing at least 74 people, mostly Islamic preachers travelling to attend a well-known religious congregation.
The popular train, Tezgam Express, was on its way to Rawalpindi from Karachi when the fire broke out early morning, gutting three compartments which had over 200 passengers, including women and children, at Liaquatpur near Rahim Yar Khan district, some 400 kms from Lahore, authorities said.
The death toll was confirmed by Railways Minister Shiekh Rashid Ahmad, The Express Tribune reported. Officials said over 40 people were seriously injured in the tragedy and the toll could rise.
The fire destroyed three of the train’s compartments, including two economy class carriages and one business class carriage.
Ahmad said that most of the victims belonged to the Tableeghi Jamaat (Islamic preachers) who were going to Lahore to attend a major annual congregation at Raiwind town.
The headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat is in Raiwind and the town hosts the Tablighi Ijtema, an annual religious congregation, which this year was held on Thursday.
“Two stoves blew up when people were cooking breakfast, the presence of kerosene with the passengers in (the) moving train further spread the fire,” Ahmad said.
He said that the passengers who were using the cylinders were stopped by a guard and the driver from doing so. “In front of the guard they turned off the stove, but when he left, they turned it back on.”
“Most deaths occurred from people jumping off the train,” the minister added.
Muhammad Nadeem Zia, a medical superintendent at the hospital in Liaquatpur, the nearest town, said that some of the victims were killed by head injuries sustained as they leapt from the moving train.
The Tableeghi Jamaat office-bearers, however, dismissed the Railway Minister’s claim, saying the explosion took place due to a short circuit.
Some injured passengers said that they had told the train officials late on Wednesday night about the short circuit smell but no attention was paid and on Thursday morning the explosion took place, the Jamaat said.
Television pictures showed fire and black smoke billowing from the train’s windows after it came to a stop on a stretch of line flanked by fields.
Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his grief over the incident and directed authorities to provide the best medical treatment to the injured.
The authorities said they were still trying to identify the victims.
Some 10 fire brigade units extinguished the fire after struggling for several hours. Rescue officials and army helicopters shifted the injured to the hospitals. The condition of most of the injured is stated to be critical.
Liquat Pur Hospital Medical Superintendent Nadeem Zia said most of the bodies brought to the hospital were beyond recognition. He said the dead will be identified through DNA tests.
Eyewitnesses said that they saw several people jumping off the moving train after it caught fire.
“I was travelling along with my mother, a sister and a brother when our bogie caught fire after a sudden explosion at around 6 am. Everyone was crying and looking for saving one’s life. I asked my family members to jump off the train before the fire reached us. My brother and I managed to jump off the train, but my mother and sister couldn’t, injured Iftikhar Ahmed told reporters at Liaqatpur Hospital.
According to a railways official, the train stopped some two kilometers after it caught the fire.
Prime Minister Khan has ordered an inquiry into the tragedy.
The Railway Minister has admitted his administration’s failure for not checking the cylinders the passengers brought with them.
It was our fault. And we will investigate it, he said and announced Rs 1.5 million compensation for each of the deceased and Rs 500,000 for the injured. (PTI)