'There was a loud noise, followed by smoke'

The Times of India

19 February 2007

DEEWANA (HARYANA): Charred bodies and mangled metal of two burnt coaches of the Samjhauta Express ferrying passengers to Pakistan bore mute testimony of the ghastly tragedy that left at least 66 dead and several injured.

Bangles and footwear lying inside the coaches were among the very few items which survived the fire resulting from the explosions. It was close to midnight when passengers in two compartments woke up to the smell of smoke and fire.

As they scrambled to ascertain the cause, the fire had by then fast engulfed the two bogies. Panic-stricken passengers started screaming and rushing to the exit points but leaping flames prevented them from escaping to safety.

“There was a loud noise followed by fire and smoke,” a middle-aged unidentified woman from Faisalabad in Pakistan, with burnt marks on her face and bandages on her arms, said.

Samjauhata Express, symbolising peace and friendship between India and Pakistan, was started on July 22, 1976 following the Shimla Agreement and operated between Amritsar-Lahore, a distance of about 42 kms. The train service was snapped on January one, 2002 in the wake of the terror attack on Parliament. It was resumed on January 15, 2004 as part of peace efforts.

The bi-weekly train now runs on Tuesdays and Fridays between Delhi and Attari in India and Wagah and Lahore in Pakistan. Passengers from either side cross over at the Attari-Wagah stations for their onward journeys.

In the torched bogies, lay an overturned lota (a small vessel used for prayers). Onlookers at the site said that villagers and the entire panchayat rushed to the spot carrying buckets of water to douse the blaze. Fire brigade personnel and medical relief reached the spot after an hour, they said.

A Saharanpur resident, Zubaida, who was going to Karachi, said that around midnight suddenly there was noise and shouts of fire from the passengers.

“Initially I and other passengers failed to understand as to what had happened,” said Zubaida, who was travelling in the three-tier sleeper bogie adjacent to the completely burnt bogie.

Aziz Ahmed, a resident of Delhi who was traveling to Rawalpindi, said that soon after crossing the Ambala Cantonment railway station, passengers noticed the fire from the two coaches and pulled the chain. Two of his co-passengers jumped from the running train, he said.

Passengers gave two different versions - one about a blast followed by fire and the other that there was only fire which spread fast. An eyewitness said that a seven-year-old boy was pulled out of the burning bogie.