Published January 13, 2015
Relatives looked through bodies burned beyond recognition in the capital's morgue Thursday, trying to identify loved ones killed in Egypt's worst train disaster, as investigators pledged to quickly uncover the cause of the fire that killed 361 people.
On the eve of one of the country's biggest family holidays, relatives traveled from villages of southern Egypt to converge on Cairo's main morgue, where bodies were brought from the train that caught fire Wednesday. Some brought coffins in which to take their dead home.
Some 170 bodies have been identified so far, the Middle East News Agency reported. The main investigator's office revised the total death toll Thursday to 361, from 370.
Charred bodies of 10 to 15 children were among those taken from the train, a witness at the accident scene said Thursday. Most of the passengers on the crowded train were men who work in Cairo, traveling alone back to their home villages in the south to see family during the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice."
Abdel Atti Mohammed said he saw many bodies in the morgue that were "only pieces of charcoal." He was able to identify his nephew, Mamdouh Ahmed Mohammed, 22, only because his identification card was still with the body.
The elder Mohammed said his nephew had been working as a waiter in Cairo and his family had expected him to visit them in Sohag, 240 miles south, for the four-day holiday, which begins Friday. After hearing news reports of the accident, they called his friends in Cairo to learn he had been on that train.
Stick-wielding riot police stood on the streets around the morgue in case grief and anger erupted into anti-government protests. But the scene was calm.
The fire broke out just after midnight early Wednesday, soon after the train left Cairo packed with passengers. The burning train barreled ahead for 21/2 miles -- with desperate people jumping from windows and doors -- before the engineer realized there was a fire. Even after he stopped, the fire went on for hours, whipped by strong winds, with scores of people trapped inside.
On Thursday, some relatives on route to Cairo stopped at the site of the disaster, 60 miles to the south near Reqa al-Gharbiya, to search hospitals for survivors.
Mohammed Hassan searched in vain through six hospitals in the area for his 58-year-old brother, Ali Hassan, who was returning to Sohag on the train.
One place Hassan said he refused to visit was the morgue. "I don't want to go there," said the 55-year-old Hassan, adding only that it would be "hard to identify bodies because of the fire."
Residents of Reqa al-Gharbiya, who had helped rescue and shelter survivors and recover bodies, searched piles of burned belongings left around the fire-gutted train cars Thursday for clues to victims' identities.
"We found IDs, exam papers, telephone numbers," said Hesham Saleh. "We give them to the (police). We are trying to help the relatives of the dead. The police left behind a lot of important things."
The top prosecutor promised to uncover the reasons for the disaster "as soon as possible," as opposition newspapers lashed out at the government.
Investigators will look into not only into the causes, but also into "those who were behind the tragic accident," Prosecutor General Maher Abdel Wahid said in his Cairo office. Despite the holidays, investigators would be questioning survivors and railway officials around the clock.
A possible cause of the fire was the small gas stoves passengers often bring aboard to cook meals and make tea, despite regulations forbidding it.
Ahmed al-Sherif, director of the state-owned Egyptian Railway Authority, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it was not clear why the emergency brakes were not immediately applied after the fire erupted, letting the train speed on for another 21/2 miles.
Some passengers died leaping from the moving train. The fire eventually reached seven of the train's 11 cars.
Egyptian media quoted train driver Mansour Youssef el-Qams as saying he did not at first see the fire. He told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram that he managed to stop the train some 12 minutes after seeing flames. He said he heard no explosions before or during the fire.
El-Qams said he ordered his crew to separate the burning cars from the rest of the train, and they tried in vain to fight the fire with four fire extinguishers, the Middle East News Agency said.
An hour later, the unburned part of the train continued on to Minya, 75 miles south of the accident, the driver said, according to Egypt's Al-Gomhuria newspaper. The train's final destination was Luxor, 300 miles south of Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic fundamentalist group and main opposition group, demanded a "serious" inquiry into who was to blame for an accident it said Thursday was due to "gross faults, irresponsibility and negligence."
The Al-Wafd opposition newspaper said in a front page editorial, "We need to know who was responsible and hang them in public squares and curse them for what they have done to the helpless Egyptian people."
The government announced $665 compensation for families of the dead and $222 for the injured.
The accident was the deadliest in more than 150 years of Egyptian railroad history and one of the worst train fires anywhere in the world. In 1989, about 600 people were killed when a gas pipeline explosion blew apart two trains stopped in Russia's Ural Mountains.