Fire sweeps Egypt train, kills hundreds on holiday

Flames and smoke engulf car after car

February 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

AYYAT, Egypt - A blazing train crammed with holiday travelers sped through the darkness early yesterday with flames engulfing car after car. More than 370 passengers were killed, some of whom leapt to their deaths in an effort to escape.

The fire is thought to have been ignited by the explosion of a small stove used to make tea or heat food. Some of the scores of injured passengers described the pandemonium on board as the flames and thick smoke raced through the moving train.

"A horrible fire burst open the door like the devil himself was coming through," said Yasser Fuad, 28, a fruit seller traveling from Cairo to Asyut. "People were screaming as they got grilled like so many chickens. There was flesh and blood everywhere, and I said to myself, `I'm dead.'"

The fire, described as the worst rail disaster in Egypt's history, erupted about 1 a.m., 90 minutes after the train left Cairo for Luxor. It consumed seven cars before engineers realized what was happening and uncoupled the flaming cars from the front nine at this village 30 miles south of the capital, according to officials at the scene.

Passengers said the cars were full of children because many families were headed south for the most important feast day of the Muslim calendar. They described scenes of screaming people on fire running through the train, only to be stopped by a wall of people in the next car. The fire would then roll on, swallowing groups of passengers unable to move.

The fruit seller, speaking from a hospital bed here, said he stuck his head out a window to try to figure out how to escape and saw flames leaping from every window of the cars in front. People were hanging from doors and windows. He said he waited for the train to slow, but when it did not he jumped.

Rescue workers carted blackened, twisted bodies off the train all day yesterday, some with faces and body parts melted away. Some of the corpses were curled up underneath the seats, as if trying to find refuge. The smell of burned flesh hung in the air.

Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Obeid said on the evening news that the final death toll was more than 370, but an exact number had not been determined. He said the cause of the fire was under investigation, but the culprit was likely an illegal stove lit by a passenger.

Officials said the accident was the worst disaster in the 150 years since the founding of the Egyptian Railway Authority.

"There has not been anything like this in the recent or even distant past," Ahmed al-Sherif, the director of the railway authority, said at the scene.

Sherif said the train was overcrowded, and estimated the number aboard at about 1,200. If his estimate is correct, nearly a quarter of those on board perished.

Passengers said all seats were full, with people lying in overhead luggage racks and the aisles overflowing.

"We couldn't move a meter, but the flame was moving, eating more people," said Ali Ahmed, 28, a construction worker taken to Um Al Misriyiin Hospital in Cairo with burns on 55 percent of his upper body. "We were suffocating from the smoke, and the fire caught my head and back. Then I got pushed out of the train."

Another passenger toward the rear said he heard screaming and smelled smoke, but a report passed through his car that a small fire had been brought under control. The electricity had died, leaving passengers in the dark, when suddenly a roaring wall of smoke and fire came through the door.

"I squeezed out a window and was hanging onto the bars running across it," said Hassan Ahmad, a 31-year-old construction worker. "I saw so many people dying before my eyes. They were hanging out of the doors and windows but they got slammed into the electricity poles as the train kept moving."

About 40 bodies were scattered along the tracks behind the train, rescue officials said.

Ahmad said he hung on until his hands could no longer bear the heat. "Finally, I prepared myself to die and said, `There is no God, but God,' and then I let go," he recounted from his hospital bed, having regained consciousness there with a broken shoulder.

Sherif said the train had emergency brakes and fire extinguishers, but it is unlikely that panicked passengers were able to find them. Some passengers disputed that, saying their cars lacked emergency brakes.

In the past, opposition groups such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood have tried to capitalize on the government's dismal relief efforts by organizing their own, but such activity has been banned.

Tomorrow marks the start of the Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice," a four-day holiday that celebrates God's providing Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead of his son.

For the holiday, many Egyptians return to their native villages for a family reunion. The train that burned was made up of second and third-class cars, where a subsidized ticket for the full 300-mile journey from Cairo to Luxor cost about $5. Foreign tourists and more affluent Egyptians generally travel on the first-class trains, because those like the one in the accident stop at every village.

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