When D. Raja Sudhakar, branch manager of United India Insurance in Vijayawada boarded Tamil Nadu Express (12622) bound for Chennai, at 1 a.m., all he was hoping for, was a decent nap.

But that was not to be. Mr. Sudhakar was woken by a loud noise and the voices of people. The S11 coach by which he was travelling was engulfed in smoke and he said he spotted flames in the electrical panel near berth no. 72. Some people had pulled the emergency chain to stop the train and were trying to open the doors, but they were jammed, he said.

Mr. Sudhakar was in berth no. 7 and rushed to the nearby entrance and pulled the chain. By the time he managed to pry open the door, the train had stopped. Some passengers rushed out and a few tried to help the others. “We did not think of the emergency exit. Whoever was awake escaped. Some were sleeping on the second and third berths. They died in that position,” said Mr. Sudhakar, who was clad in navy blue tracks, a tee-shirt and blue socks.

“There may have been at least 70 or more people as several passengers were travelling in the compartment without reservation. I was sitting on the side berth and there was another man sitting next to me. I managed to save 20 people. An elderly couple was travelling with their daughter. I pulled them out of the train but I could not save their 18-year-old daughter as it became very hot and was full of smoke. They were going to admit their daughter in college,” he said.

He jumped out of the coach when the heat became intense, he said. “Within 20 minutes the entire coach was burnt. The rescue team came only after 45 minutes but a visit by the Nellore collector and superintendent of police helped,” he added.

Even as he was rescuing co-passengers in Andhra Pradesh, some local channels ran a scroll declaring him dead. “Some of them said I was alive,” he said with a smile. “I called my family and told them I was alive.” His colleague T. Lakshmana Sekar was at the station in Chennai to receive him when the train arrived at 11.15 a.m.

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