POLGAHAWELA, Sri Lanka – A passenger train rammed into a bus that tried to dash through a railroad crossing Wednesday, killing at least 35 people and injuring another 60. Witnesses said people, some of them on fire, jumped out of windows after the crash.
All the dead and injured were aboard the bus, which the train dragged for about 100 yards before the bus burst into flames and ended up a mangled heap of metal. Open suitcases and passengers' clothes were strewn about.
The private passenger bus was apparently racing another bus when it zipped past a warning gate and tried to cross a railroad track at Polgahawela, a small town surrounded by rice- and coconut-farming villages about 50 miles northeast of the capital, Colombo (search).
Railway employee E.M. Jayaratna said the automatic warning gate had closed as the train was approaching.
"There were other vehicles waiting, but this bus overtook them and came near the gate," he said. "They thought they would manage to speed up and cross, but it did not happen."
"Our initial investigation suggests that two buses were competing with each other to reach Colombo faster," said police spokesman Rienzie Perera.
Both the driver and conductor of the bus were arrested Wednesday, after authorities found them at a local hospital. Police were guarding them from angry survivors.
Transport Minister Felix Perera, after visiting the crash site, said, "We can clearly say the fault lies with the driver and conductor of the bus."
Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga (search) said in a statement that she was "shocked and saddened," by the incident.
"Initial reports ... (show) this was the fault of an errant private bus crew which defied traffic rules," Kumaratunga said, adding that she had directed the transportation minister to submit a detailed report.
Most of the injured were taken to nearby hospitals. Thirteen others, including a 10-year-old, had serious head and chest injuries and were rushed to the National Hospital in Colombo, said the hospital's director, Hector Weerasinghe. Ten were in critical condition, he said.
There are more than 900 such crossings in Sri Lanka. Drivers often race through crossings ahead of approaching trains, and accidents are common, though not of the magnitude of Wednesday's crash.
Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean island country of 19 million people, has a railroad system established by British colonial rulers in 1865.