AHMADABAD, India – A crowded passenger train slammed into a stationary freight train in western India early Thursday, throwing cars off the tracks and killing at least 24 people, a top railway official said.
At least 94 people were injured, 20 of them seriously, in the collision in Samlaya, a village at Gujarat (search) state.
It was not immediately clear what caused the accident, though one official said a signal failure might be to blame.
Soldiers used metal cutters to extract about 80 passengers trapped in a coach that had climbed over another, as anxious relatives awaited word about their loved ones.
"I was sleeping when I fell from the upper berth. There was a deafening crash. We tried getting out of the coach, but the door was jammed," said passenger Preeti Thakkar, 23, who was in a hospital with an injured collarbone from her fall.
The accident occurred when a passenger train coming from the Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi (search) hit the freight train at the Samlaya station, about 22 miles west of the city of Vadodara. At least five of the cars derailed and fell on their sides.
Federal Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav (search) was heckled by a crowd of about 1,000 and stones were thrown at his car when he visited the main hospital in Vadodara where 72 of the injured were being treated. No one was injured in the confrontation.
Earlier, Yadav visited the crash site and spoke to railway officials but did not speak to the hundreds of passengers and their relatives still at Samlaya station.
"It took the railway minister more than eight hours to reach the site. And when he reached the hospital, the police would not let us talk to him," said Navin Shah, who was searching for his father, a passenger on the train.
Villagers from Samlaya and other nearby communities were the first to reach the train and began pulling people out of the fallen coaches. Firefighters and soldiers used a hydraulic ladder to reach the top of a coach that had climbed over another and cut through the top with blowtorches to rescue people trapped inside.
Railway officials said all the train coaches were full when the train started out from Varanasi and that at least 432 passengers were aboard.
"We fear around 80 people are still trapped in one of the coaches," said Gujarat railway minister Narayan Singh Rathore, who was supervising the rescue operation.
The injured, many of them bleeding and groaning, were taken to hospitals in Vadodara; at least 10 were reportedly in serious condition.
Many of the passengers were sleeping when the accident occurred around 3:30 a.m. (6 p.m. EDT Wednesday).
"It was terrible. People were screaming in the dark and everyone was pushing to get out of the train," said Thakkar, who was traveling with her parents.
After about two hours, Thakkar said, soldiers were able to cut through the door of the coach and pull out those trapped inside. Thakkar was taken to hospital by rescue workers and said she had no word about her parents.
"I don't know about my parents. I have not seen them since it happened," she said, weeping.
Anish Mohammad Khan, a tea vendor on the train, said he jumped off the moving train when he saw it was about to wreck.
"While I was moving from one coach to another, I saw a goods train on the same track. Sensing trouble, I jumped from the running train," said Khan from his hospital bed where he is being treated for head and knee fractures.
Shocked survivors of the crash and anxious relatives of those still trapped in the train, waited at Samlaya station as railway officials scrambled to get vehicles to take them to Vadodara for their onward journey.
It was not immediately clear what caused the accident.
"At first hand it appears to be a failure of the signal system. We've ordered a probe and the report should be out soon," Rathore said.
India's sprawling rail network is 67,000 miles long — Asia's second-largest after China. Every day at least 13 million people use the state-run network which has poor safety standards and is plagued by accidents. Around 300 accidents involving trains occur in India each year.