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250 Said Dead in India Train Crash

August 2, 1999

GAUHATI, India (AP) _ Two express trains collided head-on at a station in eastern India today, crumpling into fiery, twisted wreckage and killing hundreds of passengers, according to railway officials and news reports.

United News of India reported at least 250 passengers were killed and more than 200 injured. Press Trust of India said as many as 500 people may have been killed and more than 1,000 injured.

A team of doctors and paramedics _ including medical students from a nearby college _ rushed to the site. But rescuers were having difficulty cutting through the mangled wreckage to get to the victims, news reports said.

Jyoti Basu, a government official in West Bengal, where the accident took place, said 156 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage. ``The death toll is likely to be much more,″ he was quoted as saying by UNI.

Officials at the railway headquarters in Gauhati said a fire engulfed several coaches, burning to death some of the 2,500 passengers aboard the two trains. All four of the engineers from the trains were killed, the news agencies reported.

Rail officials initially believed the accident was caused by an explosion, but later said a collision was to blame. Officials now say a signal failure may have caused both trains to be on the same track, PTI reported.

The collision of the Brahmputra Mail train from Gauhati and the Awadh-Assam Express from New Delhi occurred in Gaisan Station, a small town rail stop in West Bengal state _ 310 miles west of Gauhati and near India’s border with Bangladesh _ at 1:30 a.m. local time today (4 p.m. EDT Sunday).

The seriously injured were taken to civilian and military hospitals in the towns of Kishanganj and Islampur, UNI reported. The railway minister, Nitish Kumar, left New Delhi to travel to the area by plane and helicopter.

The area is more than a 14-hour drive by car from the nearest cities, Calcutta and Gauhati, and its remoteness hampered access and accurate information.

Robin Kalita, a Northeast Frontier Railway spokesman in Gauhati, told The Associated Press that seven coaches of the first train and five of the second had been ripped apart. The Indian government had no immediate comment.

The engine of the Awadh-Assam Express was blasted into the air by the impact and fell onto an adjacent railroad track, PTI reported.

Train accidents are common in India, which has the world’s largest railway network under one management, with more than 14,000 trains carrying 12 million people daily. Officials say some 400 accidents occur every year. Sixty percent are blamed on human error.

The worst previous train wreck in India took place near New Delhi in 1995, killing 358 people.

But rail officials, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, had earlier said they suspected militant groups from neighboring Assam state of bombing the trains.

Several guerrilla organizations are active in India’s northeast. The largest, the United Liberation Front of Assam, seeks independence from India. Militants from the Bodo tribe in Assam, who seek greater autonomy or a state of their own within the Indian federation, have attacked rail lines in the past to press their claims.