A speeding train ran over revellers watching fireworks during a Hindu festival in northern India Friday, killing more than 50 people, with eyewitnesses saying they were given no warning before disaster struck.
The crowd had gathered on railway tracks in the city of Amritsar in Punjab state to watch a fireworks show marking the Dussehra festival when the train barrelled down the line at high speed.
“There was a lot of noise as firecrackers were being let off and it appears they (victims) were unable to hear the approaching train,” a police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“There are more than 50 dead. The priority now is to take the injured to the hospital,” Amritsar city police commissioner S S Srivastava told reporters.
More than 60 people who were injured were being given emergency treatment at various hospitals across the city, he added.
TV footage showed crowds gathered around the venue where an effigy of demon king Ravana was set alight, exploding into a huge fireball.
One of the revellers, Mintoo, a migrant labourer who uses one name, told the Hindustan Times daily that he had no idea the train was approaching.
“It had become dark and everyone was watching the effigy go up in flames when the train suddenly appeared,” he said.
An eyewitness speaking to a local TV channel described scenes of “utter commotion” when the crowds noticed the train “coming very fast” towards them.
“Everyone was running helter-skelter and suddenly the train crashed into the crowds of people,” he said.
Another eyewitness said people were busy taking pictures on their mobile phones and “they were not given any warning that they should not stand on the tracks.”
Many who had climbed on rooftops for a glimpse of the action clapped and cheered as the fireworks exploded.
But the festive scenes soon turned tragic.
“I have lost my child, I want him back,” an inconsolable mother said, wailing and beating her chest.
Some relatives of the deceased blamed the authorities for allowing a “big function” to be held next to the railway track.
An AFP photographer at the scene said some victims had lost limbs in the accident while others suffered head wounds.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh ordered an investigation into the accident and announced a monetary compensation of 500,000 rupees ($6800) to each family of the victims.
“We have asked all hospitals to remain open through the night so that the injured can be treated,” Singh told reporters.
He declared a day of mourning across the state, ordering all offices and educational institutions to be closed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was extremely saddened by the “heart-wrenching tragedy” and asked officials to provide immediate assistance to the injured.
India’s railway network is the world’s fourth largest and remains the main form of travel in the vast country, but it is poorly funded and deadly accidents often occur.
The country is home to hundreds of railway crossings that are unmanned and particularly accident prone, with people often ignoring oncoming train warnings.
A 2012 government report described the loss of 15,000 passengers to rail accidents every year in India as a “massacre”.
Premier Modi has pledged $137 billion over five years to modernise the crumbling network.
Railway minister Piyush Goyal said Friday he was cancelling his trip to the US and returning to India immediately.
“May God give strength to the bereaved and injured,” Goyal tweeted.
“Railways is providing all possible assistance at the site.”
Millions of Hindus celebrate the Dussehra festival by burning giant effigies in a practice symbolising the triumph of good over evil.
Disasters at religious festivals are not uncommon in India with police and volunteers often overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowds.
Im 2016, 24 people died after a stampede broke out in the Hindu holy town of Varanasi.
Separately, Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed grief over the incident. In a tweet, the prime minister extended condolences to the bereaved.