Distraught relatives have gathered for the first funerals of some of the scores of people killed when a fire ripped through a crowded train in Pakistan, with many of the victims also residents of a single town.
Sobbing family members crowded an official building in Mirpurkhas overnight on Thursday as the first bodies covered in white cloth began arriving by ambulance from the scene of the disaster, about 90 kilometres (56 miles) from the nearest major urban centre, Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab province.
After morning Friday prayers, with women watching from nearby rooftops, more than 100 men attended the first funeral – of a car mechanic named Mohammad Saleem, who was in his late 40s.
It was held at the Bismillah Mosque, from which at least 42 pilgrims had left to board the train one day earlier bound for a religious festival near Lahore.
Muhammad Imran from Mirpurkhas fractured both his legs and one arm when he jumped from the moving train to save himself, said his brother Mohammad Arif.
“He called me, just saying ‘please come here, please save my life’,” Arif told to a media person by telephone, a day after one of the worst train accidents in Pakistan‘s history claimed at least 73 lives.
Imran was on board the Tezgam Express train bound for Raiwind, the central office of the Tableeghi Jamaat religious organisation of which he is a member, to attend its annual ‘ijtema’ gathering.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered an urgent investigation into the accident and the government will provide monetary compensation of 1.5 million Pakistani rupees ($9,650) to the families of those killed, as well as 500,000 rupees ($3,200) each to those injured.
Drivers slowed the train within minutes, but it took significant time for aid to arrive, survivors and their families told to a media person.
By the time they arrived, many had already succumbed to smoke inhalation or flames within the carriages. More than 40 people are being treated for injuries at hospitals in nearby Rahim Yar Khan, Multan and Liaquatpur.
Muhammad Rustam, 40, a shopkeeper from Mirpurkhas had just returned to his seat to get some rest after offering his morning prayers when he says he heard a commotion from amongst other passengers.
“I saw smoke and flames and the air was so thick I couldn’t breathe,” he told to a media person.
“My little brother, he broke the window of the carriage and the train slowed down after five minutes, that’s when we jumped from the train.”
Rustam is being treated for smoke inhalation and an injury to his legs from jumping from the train in Rahim Yar Khan.
For others, their injuries were more serious. Rana Tahir, 35, had just had a major operation and his 65-year-old father was awaiting further word from doctors on Friday morning.
“He was sleeping when the fire started, he woke up when he was choking on the smoke,” he said.
Twenty-four Mirpurkhas residents are among the injured and at least another 40 are still missing, the town’s deputy commissioner, Attaullah Shah, told the AFP news agency.
Officials in Rahim Yar Khan have said many of the bodies are charred beyond recognition and will have to be identified through DNA testing – a process that could take up to one month.
Arif said that his brother “saw people making tea on a [gas stove] and that fell”. Passengers attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby blanket, said Arif, but when that did not work, they fled.
“It set fire to the carriage, and he jumped from the moving train to save himself.”
Imran’s version of events appears to corroborate the government’s claims that the fire occurred due to a gas stove overturning. Conflicting witness accounts to Pakistani local media, however, have claimed the fire occurred as a result of a short-circuit in an adjacent carriage.
On Thursday, Pakistani Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed admitted “negligence” on the part of authorities having allowed the gas stoves onto the train, amid calls for him to resign.
“It is our negligence that passengers were able to bring cylinders and stoves in the train, and as a result this incident happened,” he said, in a statement. “We don’t have scanners at small stations but at all seven big divisional headquarters we have scanner facility.”
Mirpurkhas, a town of some half a million people surrounded by farms and mango orchards, was largely shut down on Friday as businesses closed in mourning.
“These were such people that we can not ever forget them,” Mohammad Anwar, the 57-year-old head teacher of a government school, told AFP at the Bismillah Mosque.
Accidents and fires are common on Pakistan‘s ageing rail network, parts of which continue to use colonial-era infrastructure. Since last year, there have been at least eight major derailments and collisions, as well as three fires.