In Depth

Pakistan train fire: what we know so far

At least 70 people have been killed after a blaze ripped through a train

Scores of people have been killed and dozens more injured after a devastating fire ripped through a passenger train in central Pakistan.

According to reports, between 65 and 74 passengers died when fire broke out in one of the carriages of the cross-country Tezgam Express service on Thursday morning. The Guardian reports that footage of the incident “showed three of the carriages engulfed by flames” with “dark smoke pouring out of the windows”.

Pakistan’s railways minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed claimed the fire was likely to have been caused by the explosion of an illicit gas canister brought on board by passengers in order to cook breakfast.

“Two stoves blew up when people were cooking breakfast, the presence of kerosene with the passengers in the moving train further spread the fire,” Ahmed said, adding that many of the casualties occurred when people threw themselves from the moving carriages to escape the flames.

Authorities suggest that the death toll may rise, with a number of passengers understood to have been trapped in the stricken train.

What happened on Thursday morning?

The Tezgam Express is a 962-mile train route running from Rawalpindi, in the north of Pakistan, to Karachi, the country’s largest city, on the southern coast.

Al Jazeera reports that the fire broke out around halfway along the route in the Pakistani region of Punjab on Thursday morning.

The BBC adds that three carriages were set alight, with 54 people in the 11th carriage and 78 each in carriages 12 and 13. 

Several of the injured jumped off the train, many to their deaths, after the fire broke out. The number of victims has not yet been finalised but authorities believe it to currently be in the range of 65 to 74.

District deputy commissioner Jamil Ahmed told reporters that “some of the victims were so badly burnt they could not be identified, and they would need to use DNA to find out who had died”, the BBC reports.

The broadcaster adds that many of those on board were pilgrims heading to Raiwind near Lahore for “one of Pakistan’s largest annual religious congregations, organised by the Tablighi Jamaat Sunni Muslim missionary movement” and that the train was “reportedly diverted to help these religious travellers”.

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What caused the fire?

The authorities have already pointed the finger of blame at the use of illegal gas stoves by passengers on the train. Minister for railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said some passengers were “trying to prepare breakfast on the stove as the train was moving, violating railway rules”.

“Two cooking stoves blew up,” he told Pakistani broadcaster GeoTV. “They were cooking, they had [cooking] oil which added fuel to fire.

“Most deaths occurred from people jumping off the train,” he added.

The BBC says that passengers bringing stoves on to trains to cook meals on long journeys is a “common problem”, adding that although it is “common to carry food on board, gas cylinders are banned”. And Sky News adds that safety regulations are often ignored on overcrowded trains and accidents on the country’s dilapidated rail network are common.

However, the railways minister also insisted that the passengers were not entirely at fault for the incident. “It was our negligence that they were allowed to board with a gas cylinder,” he said.

The BBC reports that the current hypothesis of a gas cylinder fire is not unanimous, however, with witnesses at the scene reportedly claiming that electrical problems could have been the cause.

“Several survivors have reportedly said they believed a short-circuit on board may have been to blame,” the broadcaster says.

What has the reaction been?

The fire has since been extinguished, GeoTV reports. Nine people were reportedly airlifted to the burns unit at nearby Multan district hospital and rescue workers have now begun searching for the remains of victims using DNA.

The Guardian adds that local hospitals have “struggled to cope with the scale of the blaze”.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, tweeted his condolences, stating: “Deeply saddened by the terrible tragedy of the Tezgam train. My condolences go to the victims’ families and prayers for the speedy recovery of the injured. I have ordered an immediate inquiry to be completed on an urgent basis.”

The railways minister has also announced Rs1.5m (£7,450) in compensation for each of the families of the deceased in the Tezgam incident and Rs500,000 (£2,400) for those injured.

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