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Archive for Thursday, February 21, 2002

Survivors recount chaos during Egypt train fire

February 21, 2002

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— Ali Thabet climbed out the window of a speeding train and held on for his life Wednesday as flames rushed through his carriage and leaped into subsequent ones, leaving hundreds of passengers charred beyond recognition in a horrific railway disaster.

Thabet jumped and survived. His father, Ali Moustafa, did, too.

"I just tried to save my life," Thabet, 20, said as he sat at his father's hospital bed while rescue workers pulled bodies from the wreckage. "I held on until the fire made my feet and legs burn, then I let go."

The third-class passenger train had been packed with men, women and children crammed into every conceivable space. Tickets were only 3 1/2 pounds, not even a dollar, for the 300-mile journey from Cairo to the southern city of Luxor on the state-owned train. Most of the passengers were headed home to celebrate the Islamic feast of Eid al Adha, marking Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.

Nearly 400 people never made it home.

Ahmed Adil, the Health Ministry undersecretary, put the death toll at 370. That made it the deadliest accident in 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.

Officials said the fire started about 12:30 a.m., an hour after the train pulled out of Cairo. The blaze apparently began in the cafe car, at one end of the train, when a gas canister used for cooking exploded.

Officials said that for some reason, the train traveled for about four miles after the fire broke out, the wind licking through already missing or broken windows, fueling the flames. When the train finally stopped, it took several more hours to extinguish the blaze.

The circumstances were still under investigation. What was clear, however, to the witnesses who saw passengers hurling themselves from windows, the rescue workers who struggled to pull apart the fused bodies and the few passengers who survived was that the train was so overcrowded, almost no one could get to the exits.

Each carriage had room for about 150 passengers, but some at the scene said it seemed as if twice as many were packed in.

Witnesses described panicked women, their dresses on fire, rushing forward and slamming into a wall of frantic passengers. They surged forward together and died together, one on top of the other.

"The dead people were all piled up in one place in each car, like they were trying to escape," said Mamdouh Salem, one of the first ambulance attendants at the scene.

Outside, the carriages were burnt down to the metal. Inside, rescue workers, some in shorts, many with makeshift masks wrapped around their faces, struggled to pull out the remains. The heat had been so intense, everything  luggage, seats and people  had melded. The railroad crossing alarm clanged nonstop as they worked.

Twelve miles up the road, at the hospital in Ayyat village, the morgue was filled beyond capacity and 36 survivors were being treated, mostly for burns and trauma from jumping out of the train. The hospital manager said 19 passengers with serious burns had been sent for treatment in Cairo.

By late Wednesday, Egypt's state-owned news channels hadn't broadcast any details of the incident except to say there had been a fire on a Luxor-bound train.

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