KHANPUR, India – Welders cut through metal, and soldiers pulled bodies from the crushed cars of two trains that collided head-on Tuesday in northern India, killing 31 people. The railway minister said the crash was "nothing less than a brutal murder."
At least 50 people were injured, with 16 of them in serious condition, after the crash in rural northern Punjab state (search), railway officials said.
A "communications snag" between stationmasters at two stations apparently caused the crash, with an express train and a local train allowed to travel toward each other on the same track, said Dharam Singh, the top railway official in the area.
"I don't consider it an accident. It is nothing less than a brutal murder," federal Railways Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav told reporters at the site, speaking through a megaphone in front of the wreckage. He said at least 31 people were dead.
The two stationmasters, as well as an engineer who allegedly did not prevent the two trains from moving on the same track, had been fired and would face criminal charges of culpable homicide, Yadav said.
The accident highlighted blind spots in India's huge train network, often criticized for poor safety standards.
Villagers from nearby areas were among the first at the site, driving tractors and carrying metal rods, axes and ropes to pull people out and transport the dead and injured. They also helped set up free soup kitchens and first-aid centers near the site.
Soldiers from a nearby base rushed to the scene of the crash amid wheat fields about 180 miles northwest of New Delhi. The troops climbed onto the wreckage and pulled out bodies and survivors as welders cut into the metal.
"I felt a violent jerk, and the next moment I realized everybody was jumping out to save their lives. As we came out, we saw the passenger train engine on fire and twisted pieces of iron all around," said Neeta Mohindroo, a passenger on the express train, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The drivers of both trains were killed, the agency reported.
Deputy Commissioner Harjit Singh, who supervised the rescue, said all bodies had been found except that of the express train's assistant driver, which was trapped in the twisted metal of the engine.
It was India's second major train accident this year. In June, 14 people died when a high-speed train derailed after hitting boulders on the track in western Maharashtra state.
Minor derailments and other accidents are common in this country's state-run rail system, which operates 7,000 passenger trains a day.
The sprawling rail network is 67,000 miles long — the world's second-largest after China.
Most of the dead in Tuesday's crash were from the local train, which apparently could not stop in time because it had been negotiating a curve. The express train was traveling from Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir (search), to Ahmadabad in western Gujarat state. The local train was traveling between the cities of Jalandhar and Pathankot.
Passengers' relatives jammed stations along the train routes, pleading for information.
At a station in the western city of Ahmadabad (search), the express train's destination, dozens wept as they waited for word about their loved ones.
"They are not even telling us which compartments got damaged in the accident, and only saying that information from Punjab would come at any moment," said Bipul Shah, a government employee whose parents were on the train.