NEW DELHI — A high-speed train plowed into a crowd of Hindu pilgrims who were crossing the tracks at a remote station in eastern India on Monday, killing at least 37 people and leaving a scene of carnage.
An enraged crowd dragged out the driver and began beating him and set parts of the train on fire, sending up a pillar of thick black smoke.
The crowd remained so furious that hours passed before firefighters and rescue workers were able to approach the site of the accident, officials said. A train sent to help the wounded was forced to halt on the tracks a mile away.
The station was a remote one — inaccessible by road — and the high-speed Rajya Rani Express typically barrels through without stopping at a speed of around 50 miles an hour. Railway officials said the driver had been given clearance to pass through.
But Monday was the last day of a holy month in India, and hundreds of people were disembarking from two stopped passenger trains while on their way to a temple a half-mile away to offer holy water to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
A top official at the railway ministry, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, said the driver had pulled the emergency brake when he saw people on the tracks but was unable to stop the train.
“It was all quite frightening,” said Rohit Kumar, a passenger, who jumped off the train and ran for a quarter-mile to the nearest station when the crowd began to attack. “I’m standing here and watching smoke billowing out from the train. It was nightmarish. So scary.”
S.K. Singh, the deputy magistrate of the Saharsa district, said 37 people were confirmed dead, including several children. India’s railway minister, Mallikarjun Kharge, said the pilgrims were crossing the tracks illegally. Parliamentary discussion Monday afternoon deteriorated into a shouting match over whether the government bore responsibility.
The chief minister of Bihar, the state where the disaster occurred, called it “the rarest of rare tragedies.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released a statement calling for “calm in the area so that the relief and rescue operations can be carried out without any hindrance.”
The station, Dhamara Ghat, was inaccessible by car because of the current flood season, so rescue workers had to walk more than 2 miles from the nearest road to reach the injured, a regional police spokesman said.
Several disasters have befallen pilgrims in India this year. In June, thousands drowned when flash floods struck the northern state of Uttarakhand.
In February, dozens were killed in a train-station stampede at the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival on the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.