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India train crash survivor recounts: ‘We thought we were dead’

BALASORE, India — Ompal Bhatia, a survivor of the three-train crash in India on Friday, had first thought he was dead. When the train he was traveling in went off-track, Mr. Bhatia was with three friends on his way to Chennai for work.

The 25-year-old had spent most of the four-hour journey on the Coromandel Express standing. Mr. Bhatia, who works in the plywood business, said that just before the trains crashed, leaving nearly 300 dead, some people were getting ready to sleep.

The rail car he was in, S3, was so full that there was only standing space. He had held on to a chain, as did his friends.

The train is often used by daily wage workers, and people who work as cheap labor in industries around Chennai and Bangalore. The coach Mr. Bhatia was traveling in was not air-conditioned.

The train, traveling past hills along India’s eastern coast, takes more than 24 hours to complete the journey of more than 1,600 kilometers. Many, like Mr. Bhatia, travel the distance in overcrowded compartments, with only standing space.

It was dusk. Some who had seats were finishing their dinner, while others were trying to rest.

Another traveler in the same rail car, Moti Sheikh, 30, was also standing and chatting with a group of six other men from his village. They were planning to eat, and then sleep sitting on the floor as they didn’t have seats.

Suddenly there was a loud, violent noise, Mr. Bhatia and Mr. Sheikh said, and they felt the train suddenly start to move backwards. Sheikh first thought it was the sound of brakes, but then the coach tumbled.

“When the accident happened, we thought we were dead. When we realized we were alive, we started making our way towards the emergency window to get out of the train. The rail car had gone off the track and had fallen to one side,” Mr. Bhatia told Reuters over the phone on Saturday.

As he and his friends got out, he said there was chaos all around.

“We saw a lot of dead people. Everybody was either trying to save their lives or looking for loved ones,” he said. Fortunately, he and his friends survived.

Mr. Sheikh said that he and his friends also felt they would not survive. “We were crying when we came out,” he said, adding that help came only after about 20 minutes.

The Coromandel Express had gone off track, hit a goods train that was parked there, and then collided with a second train coming from the opposite direction.

A preliminary report has blamed a signal failure for the accident, which has left over 800 injured. As the rescue operations continue, the number of dead is likely to rise.

Archana Paul, a housewife from West Bengal, was in the other train, the Howrah Yesvantpur Express, when the crash happened.

“There was a massive noise, and everything became dark,” she said.

Traveling with her brother and 10-year-old son, Ms. Paul realized that the train had derailed. “I was OK, so I started searching for my son and brother, but could not see them.”

She said people started to slowly get to their feet. “They asked me to get out, but I said no, I need to search for my son. But they insisted I first get out.”

She was brought out of the rail car and waited for her son to emerge. But he didn’t, and as she was bleeding, she was put in an ambulance and taken to a hospital in Balasore.

Lying in a hospital bed, Ms. Paul started to cry as she spoke to Reuters and asked for help to find her son.

Also traveling in the Howrah Yeshvantpur Express was Kaushida Das, around 55 years old. She survived the crash, but her daughter died.

“Even though I have survived, there is nothing to live for. My daughter was everything to me,” she said. — Reuters

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