Egypt was burying the dead Saturday from a train collision that killed at least 32 passengers and injured scores as the government began investigating the country’s latest deadly rail crash.
Surveillance camera footage of the accident scene by AFP showed a speeding train barrelling into another as it rolled slowly down the tracks, sending a carriage hurtling into the air in a cloud of dust.
The health ministry said 32 people were killed and 165 others hospitalised with injuries, 70 percent of the fractures, in the crash that occurred in the Tahta district of southern Sohag province.
The first victims were laid to rest early on Saturday with small groups of family and friends in attendance in villages surrounding Tahta, with media kept at bay as residents appeared mistrustful of outsiders.
Other burials were expected to take place following mid-day Muslim prayers, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledged tough punishment for those responsible for the crash, the latest in a series of rail accidents to plague Egypt. Such incidents are generally attributed to poor infrastructure and maintenance.
– ‘Carnage‘ –
It came as the most populous Arab nation struggles with another major transport challenge — a giant container ship blocking the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane for international trade.
Early on Saturday Egypt was again struck by tragedy when a building collapsed in the capital Cairo, killing at least five people and injuring 24 others, according to officials.
At the scene of the rail disaster, technicians worked through Friday evening to remove five dislocated and damaged carriages. By morning the crash area was cleared of twisted metal and debris.
Rail traffic also resumed ahead of the burials.
Witnesses and survivors recounted horrifying scenes.
“We were at the mosque then a child came and told us (about the incident). We heard the collision, so we rushed and found the carnage,” said a 59-year-old man speaking on condition of anonymity.
The witness said that the first ambulances to reach the scene arrived “around half an hour” after the crash.
“There were children who removed (debris) using wooden ladders,” said this source, who spent the day helping rescue workers.
One of the trains was travelling between the southern city of Luxor and Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, while the other was on the way between Cairo and the southern city of Aswan.
Kamel Nagi, a 20-year-old conscript, was on the Cairo-bound train after enjoying a few days of leave.
“Our train suddenly stopped and a quarter of an hour later, the second arrived and struck us,” said Nagi, who suffered multiple broken bones.
“I saw it coming, screamed, then found myself on the ground in great pain,” he said from his hospital bed as a nurse gave him an injection to alleviate his pain.
– ‘Accidents can happen’
Authorities launched an investigation to determine the circumstances of the accident, while the rail authority blamed the crash on unidentified passengers who “activated emergency brakes” in one train.
As part of the probe, the prosecution said it would interrogate several rail employees, including the two train drivers, their assistants, and the signalman.
They will also have to undergo drug testing and their mobile phones have been seized by the authorities to examine their call logs, the prosecution said.
But media reports on Saturday claimed both train drivers had died of injuries sustained in the crash.
The rail authority said one train hit the last carriage of the other, causing at least two carriages to overturn between the stations of Maragha and Tahta.
Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli said the government will disburse 100,000 Egyptian pounds (around $6,400) to each family who lost a loved one and between 20,000-40,000 to those injured.
The government has spent “hundreds of billions of pounds” to upgrade the railway system over the past four years, he said, acknowledging that the network “has suffered from decades of negligence”.
Egypt’s railway network is one of the oldest in Africa and the Middle East and improving it “will take time”, Madbouli told reporters on Friday after visiting the crash site.
“Until then accidents like this can happen,” he said, adding that efforts to upgrade the system have been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic which has delayed deals with foreign firms
Egypt has been plagued by train accidents in recent years. One of the deadliest came in 2002 when 373 people died as a fire ripped through a crowded train south of Cairo.