Amritsar: 61 killed as train runs over festival crowd

At least 61 people were killed and over a hundred injured when a passenger train ploughed into a festival crowd watching a fireworks display from the  railway tracks in the northern Indian town of Joda Phatak near Amritsar, Punjab, on Friday evening, local reports say.

Another passenger train passing in the opposite direction at the same time  mowed down those who jumped to the second track to save their lives.

The tragedy happened between 6.30 and 7 pm as some 300 people were watching the effigy of the mythological demon king Ravana, above, exploding in flames amid the bursting of firecrackers kept within. They were celebrating the festival of Dussehra marking the triumph of good over evil symbolised by Ravana.

As sparks from fire crackers started leaping toward them, a section of  the crowd moved back  to the rail track where many spectators were already standing to get a good view of the fireworks display.

Unfortunately, most of them did not hear the Jalandhar-Amritsar passenger train approaching them.  The Howrah Mail from Amritsar came on the other track around the same time mowing down more people.

The death toll is expected to climb. Dozens of people are being treated for injuries in private and state-run hospitals.

Some of the survivors blamed the local administration and Dussehra festival committee for the accident. It appears the event was held without any approval. Since the fireworks were staged near the tracks, the organisers should have anticipated such dangers and instructed the railway authorities to halt trains or slow them between 6.30 and 7 pm. Both the trains were moving very fast.

President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed their condolences to the families of the diseased and injured.

“The tragedy is heart-wrenching,”  Modi wrote on Twitter.

Federal Railway Minister Piyush Goyal assured immediate relief to the affected families. Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha, Railway Board chairman Ashwani Lohani and Northern Railway general manager Vishwesh Chaube are on their way to the accident spot.

The government announced a state  of mourning on Saturday.  Schools and offices will remain closed.

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh declared a compensation of  $6,808 each to the families of the dead. Singh said he was on his way to the accident spot to personally monitor rescue and relief operations

India has witnessed similar tragedies in the past. In 1986, 26 people were killed and over 100 injured when a festival crowd rushed onto the railway tracks amid a massive fireworks display at the Hindu temple of Jagannath in the southern Indian town of Tellicherry in Kerala.

The tragedy was sparked by some firecrackers that accidentally fell on spectators who started running in all directions as the train was passing by.

In the 1970s, dozens of people were mowed down by a speeding train as they were watching fireworks from the tracks at Uthralikavu (Rudhiramahakali temple) near Wadackanchery in Kerala.