An error in India’s electronic signaling system was blamed Sunday for sending a passenger train jammed with workers and students into a head-on crash with a freight train, triggering one of the world’s deadliest train crashes in decades.
India’s prime minister promised the “harshest punishment” for anyone found responsible in the Friday wreck.
Jaya Verma Sinha, a senior railway official, said Sunday that a preliminary investigation revealed the tragedy began unfolding in the eastern India state of Odisha began when a signal was initially given to the high-speed express train to run on the main track line. But the signal changed, sending the Coromandel Express into an adjacent loop line where it slammed into a freight train loaded with iron ore, he said.
“We are making sure that the evidence does not get tampered with,” Verma said. “The driver of the train, who sustained serious injuries, said that the train moved forward only after it received a ‘green’ signal.”
Authorities also revised the death toll to 275, down slightly from more than 300 announced after the wreck.
∙ Many family members of the dead struggled Sunday to reach the site of the crash. Identification of victims was slowed by the mutilated condition of many remains.
∙ Railway crews worked to fix the broken tracks even as excavators continued to remove debris from the crash site.
Could an accident happen here?India train disaster updates: What to know about US train safety
Train employee ‘lucky to be alive’
Pantry worker Inder Mahato said the impact of the crash caused him to briefly lose consciousness. He awoke to see bodies of the dead and the living writhing in pain. Four of his friends died, he said, and he remained stuck in the train’s bathroom until rescuers scaled up the wreckage and pulled him out.
“God saved me,” Mahato said from a hospital bed while recuperating from a hairline fracture in his sternum. “I am very lucky I am alive.”
Train issues in the US:Trains keep derailing all over the country. What’s going on?
Prime minister vows ‘harshest punishment’ for those responsible
Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed that a thorough investigation would take place and that if people are found responsible “the guilty should get the harshest punishment. They will not be spared.”
Modi said he was “deeply moved” by the condolence messages from leaders around the world. Their kind words, he said, would provide strength to bereaved families. And he said his government would stand with the survivors of the crash and the families of those who died.
“This is a very big, painful and disturbing incident,” Modi said after touring the crash site.
Sabotage? ‘Nothing ruled out’
Verma said a detailed investigation will reveal whether the error was human or technical. The electronic interlocking system is designed to keep trains separated. It also monitors the status of signals that tell drivers how close they are to a next train, how fast they can go and the presence of stationary trains on the track.
“The system is 99.9% error free. But 0.1% chances are always there for an error,” Verma said. To a question whether the crash could be a case of sabotage, she said “nothing is ruled out.”
What happened in the collision?
The collision flipped Coromandel Express’s coaches onto another track, causing the incoming Yesvantpur-Howrah Express from the opposite side to derail. The passenger trains, carrying 2,296 people, were not speeding, Verma said.
Contributing: The Associated Press