At least 73 dead in massive train fire in eastern Pakistan
By SHAIQ HUSSAIN | Special To The Washington Post | Published: October 31, 2019
ISLAMABAD - At least 73 people died Thursday in a fire on a train traveling through Pakistan's eastern Punjab province, according to local health officials.
Yasmeen Rashid, the provincial health minister, told Samaa news station that more than 40 people were also injured in the blaze and a state of emergency was declared in nearby hospitals. News channels quoted other health officials to say the toll had risen to 73.
The fire erupted when a cooking gas stove exploded as passengers were preparing breakfast while the train was underway, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad told The Washington Post.
"This is the initial information, but I have ordered a complete probe into the incident and I am going there myself now," Ahmed said.
As the flames raced through three of the carriages, people threw themselves off the speeding train, many of them to their death.
"We could hear people crying and screaming for help," passenger Chaudhry Shujaat told the Associated Press. "I thought we would die. The next car was on fire. We felt so helpless."
Television footage showed firefighters struggling to control the blaze outside Liaquatpur in Punjab.
The train was heading from the southern port city of Karachi north to Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, and many of the passengers were from a religious organization dedicated to preaching, known as Tablighi Jamaat, according to local officials.
Passengers often bring their own cookers to make meals on the cheaper trains. Some of the survivors interviewed by local TV channels, however, suggested that the fire could have been caused by an electrical short.
One survivor with the Tablighi group told Dunya news station that the train kept moving even as the fire was raging, blaming the staff and the poor state of the equipment.
"There was no railway staff or anyone to help," said the young bearded man in his 20s, who was not named. "Even the train emergency chain, meant to stop it, was not working. This incident occurred because of the railways' own negligence and they are blaming the Tabghili Jamaat people for cooking and causing all this, which is wrong, no one was doing that."
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered an immediate inquiry into the train fire. In a tweet Khan wrote he is "deeply saddened by the terrible tragedy" and sent his condolences "to the victims' families & prayers for the speedy recovery of the injured."
The blaze erupted in an extremely remote part of the country in Punjab province. Most of the injured are being treated at a hospital in Liaquatpur, but those in critical condition have been taken to the nearest large city, Multan, according to reports.
The Pakistani army dispatched helicopters to the site to transfer the injured, according to a statement from the army's media wing. The army has also sent doctors and paramedics to aid rescue and relief efforts.
Pakistan has a history of deadly train accidents stemming from poor railway infrastructure. Dozens have been killed in train derailments and collisions across the country in recent years. Many portions of Pakistan's railways are decades old and lie in disrepair due to inefficiency, corruption and nepotism.
Despite the state of disrepair, the railways are heavily used, serving some 70 million passengers in the past year.
The whole rail network is scheduled to be modernized and overhauled with a massive $62 billion joint Pakistani-Chinese infrastructure upgrade, part of China's worldwide Belt and Road Initiative.