IN SCHOOL

36 killed as stampede mars Kumbh

Fearing the worstFamily members search for missing relatives after Sunday night's stampede.photo: AFP

Fearing the worstFamily members search for missing relatives after Sunday night's stampede.photo: AFP  

A terrifying stampede at a railway station left at least 36 people dead after the main day of Kumbh Mela religious festival, which drew record crowds of 30 million, officials said on Monday.

Dozens more were injured in the crush on Sunday evening at Allahabad, marking a tragic end to the most auspicious day of the 55-day Hindu festival in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the world's largest gathering of humanity.

Local officials said the railings on a bridge at the station had given way under the pressure of the mass of people, while witnesses said that police had baton-charged the crowd, triggering panic.

Injured people were stretchered away on ambulances from Allahabad station, but relatives said emergency services took hours to reach the scene. At least 10 corpses wrapped in white sheets could be seen on a platform several hours later.

Among the victims was an eight-year-old girl called Muskaan whose distraught parents said she had died while waiting for help for nearly two hours.

"Our daughter still had a pulse. Had the doctors reached in time she would have been saved, but she died before our eyes," Bedi Lal, the child's father, told the NDTV news channel.

Amit Malviya, a spokesman for the northern and central railway, told AFP on Monday that 20 bodies had been identified and authorities were waiting for relatives to come forward to claim another 16.

Apart from Muskaan, the victims included 26 women and nine men. The oldest was a 75-year-old man, Malviya said.

This year's Mela is enormous even by previous standards, with astrologers saying a planetary alignment seen once every 147 years made it particularly auspicious.

Police had been stretched in controlling the vast crowds as they reached their peak on Sunday, with officials saying the numbers had passed the 30 million mark by the evening.

PM condoles

After the stampede, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement saying he was "deeply shocked" while the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav ordered an inquiry.

A spokesman for the state government said the crush began after joints broke on railings attached to the bridge.

But Railways Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, who headed to Allahabad after the accident, attributed the crush to sheer weight of number.

"No foot-over bridge collapsed, no railings collapsed," Bansal told reporters.

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