At least 65 people were killed and dozens injured after cooking gas cylinders exploded on a train packed with pilgrims in Pakistan on Thursday, some dying after leaping from carriages to escape the inferno, authorities said.
Television footage showed flames pouring out of three carriages as people could be heard crying during the incident, in a rural area of central Punjab province.
Some of the passengers — many of whom were pilgrims travelling to one of Pakistan’s biggest annual religious gatherings — had been cooking breakfast when two of their gas cylinders exploded, Ali Nawaz, a senior Pakistan Railways official, told AFP.
Many Pakistanis carry food on long train journeys, but gas cylinders are banned, and Nawaz said an inquiry had been ordered.
Dozens of people crowded along the tracks staring at the burning carriages, which had been disconnected from the rest of the train, television images showed.
Firefighters later rushed to the scene near Rahim Yar Khan district, extinguishing the blaze. Rescue workers and the army could also be seen, as bodies were carried away covered in white sheets.
“According to information reaching us from the site of the accident, more than 65 people were killed and over 40 injured,” provincial health minister Yasmin Rashid told AFP.
Muhammad Nadeem Zia told AFP that some of the dead were killed by head injuries sustained as they leap from the moving train.
The wounded were being rushed to hospitals in the nearby city of Bahawalpur and elsewhere in Rahim Yar Khan district. Officials said many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.
“Deeply saddened by the terrible tragedy… My condolences go to the victim’s families & prayers for the speedy recovery of the injured,” tweeted Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“I have ordered an immediate inquiry to be completed on an urgent basis.”
Khan said the train was the Tezgam, one of Pakistan’s oldest and most popular rail services, which runs between the southern port city of Karachi to the garrison city of Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad.
But the railways official Nawaz said it had been diverted to facilitate religious pilgrims travelling to Lahore.
They were going to attend the annual Tablighi Ijtema, one of Pakistan’s biggest religious gatherings, which sees up to 400,000 people descend on a tented village outside Lahore each year for several days to sleep, say prayers and eat together.
The majority of those killed were pilgrims from southern Sindh province, he said.
The Tablighi Ijtema was founded by religious scholars more than five decades ago and focuses exclusively on preaching Islam.
It usually sees hundreds of camps and sub-camps set up on the dusty site outside Lahore to accommodate people from across Pakistan, giving the gathering a festival feel.
Stalls sell cooked food, raw chicken and meat, vegetables and fruit, even electrical appliances and batteries for mobile phones at a subsidised rate.
‘Could have been avoided’
Nawaz said two of the carriages were economy coaches, while one was business class, and that up to 88 passengers can fit into each carriage.
“A tragedy that could have been avoided but ever since I can recall while travelling by train no baggage check or restrictions enforced,” human rights minister Shireen Mazari tweeted.
Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where the railways have seen decades of decline due to corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment.
In July, at least 23 people were killed in the same district when a passenger train coming from the eastern city of Lahore rammed into a goods train that had stopped at a crossing.
Accidents often happen at unmanned crossings, which frequently lack barriers and sometimes signals.
Rural Punjab has witnessed several gruesome accidents over the years, including an oil tanker explosion in 2017 which killed more than 200 people.
The tanker crashed on a main highway. Minutes later it exploded, sending a fireball through crowds who had gathered to scavenge for the spilled fuel.