Thirty-two persons, including six women and three children, were burnt to death when flames engulfed the S11 coach of the Chennai-bound Tamil Nadu Express, close to the railway station here in Andhra Pradesh in the early hours of Monday.

Twenty-seven passengers suffered burns and two of them are stated to be critical. Most of the deceased and the injured belong to Vijayawada, Warangal and Jaipur. Some were working as software professionals in Chennai. All other coaches were intact.

Minutes after the train passed the Nellore station (it does not stop there) at 4.18 a.m., a gateman at a level crossing saw the flames and alerted officials at the station. A passenger pulled the alarm chain and the train screeched to a halt between Nellore and Vedayapalem. Some passengers escaped through the only door that was open, as the heat had rendered the other three immovable. Some more saved themselves by moving into the adjacent coach through the vestibule.

The cause of the fire is yet to be established. Survivors said they saw flames emanating from the electrical panels. Thick smoke quickly filled the entire coach, making it difficult for the passengers, who were woken up from their sleep, to find their way out. Heaps of charred remains were seen on the berths in S11 when the coach was brought here. The charred body of a child was found clinging to its dead mother.

There were 71 reserved passengers and a few “unreserved” travellers in the coach. Till late in the evening, a number of persons whose names were in the manifest could not be traced.

Eight bodies were identified by officials of the South Central Railway with the help of relatives and friends and experts — D. Shalini (23), Raju (27), Avinash (24) (they boarded the train in Warangal), S. Jaswani (34), Pallavi (25), K. Venkataramana (30) (from Vijayawada), Palak (19) (from Jhansi) and Maldish Singh (unreserved occupant).

The unidentified bodies were at the Government Hospital at Nellore. The bodies were charred beyond recognition. In most cases, only a DNA test would help identify them.

Fire tenders reached the spot within minutes as they were stationed close to the station. They swung into action immediatly, ensuring that the fire did not spread to the other coaches.

Y. Sampath (25), a software engineer at Syntel, had boarded the train with his sister. “I woke up on hearing loud screams. All I could see was black smoke,” he said recalling his harrowing experience. He scrambled out through the open door. However, his sister, Y. Ashwini (23), is missing. She is also a software professional with TCS.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy and Telugu Desam president N. Chandrababu Naidu were among the leaders who visited the spot.

Probe ordered

Kolkata Special Correspondent writes:

Railway Minister Mukul Roy said an inquiry had been ordered into the cause of the fire. “The Divisional Railway Manager told me that there was a loud noise,” he told journalists in Kolkata a few hours before he left for Chennai on his way to the site of the accident. “We do not know the cause of the fire and nothing is being ruled out — whether it was because of an electrical short-circuit or whether there were inflammable materials there.

“I would not like to say anything on the matter as that could influence the inquiry. A committee inquiring into the cause of the fire will submit its preliminary report to the Railways within 15 days,” he said.

“Though there can be no compensation for the loss of a life, I have announced an ex-gratia of Rs. 5 lakh to each of the bereaved families, Rs. 1 lakh to those seriously injured and Rs. 25,000 to those with minor injuries. The Railways will also offer a job to one dependent of each of those killed.”

He said he had taken up the matter of safety in trains with the Prime Minister and the Planning Commission. The time had come to upgrade safety measures and budgetary support was needed for this. The Minister took a dig at those who were wondering why he was in the city instead of visiting the site of the incident. “There are no flights to Chennai before 3 pm… The Railway Minister does not live in Chennai,” Mr. Roy said.

Compensation ordered

Chennai Special Correspondent writes:

Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and leaders of political parties conveyed their condolences to the families of the bereaved passengers.Ms. Jayalalithaa said she had deputed senior Ministers and bureaucrats to visit the site to take care of the injured passengers from the State. She said she had granted Rs 1 lakh to the family of every deceased passenger and Rs. 25,000 each to the injured.