A massive fire spread through multiple train cars on a train traveling Thursday in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, killing more than 70 people, in the latest tragedy to hit the country’s dilapidated rail system.
Officials said the fire was sparked by a cooking gas stove that exploded as breakfast was being prepared on board.
Survivors recounted seeing the horrific scenes as several of the injured jumped off the train – many to their deaths – with flames billowing from the carriages. Eventually, the train screeched to a halt near the town of Liaquatpur.
“We could hear people crying and screaming for help,” said Chaudhry Shujaat who had boarded the train just a few hours earlier with his wife and two children. “I thought we would die. The next car was on fire. We felt so helpless.”
It reportedly took at least 20 minutes for the train to stop after the fire broke out. Some pulled the emergency cords that weave through the train to notify the conductor.
People from nearby villages rushed to the train, carrying buckets of water and shovels to help douse the flames.
Local Pakistani TV footage from the scene showed a huge blaze raging as firefighters struggled to get it under control.
Deputy Commissioner Jamil Ahmed said the death toll, which has steadily risen throughout the morning, is expected to grow.
In Pakistan, poor passengers often bring their own small gas stoves on the trains to cook their meals, despite rules to the contrary, according to Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. Safety regulations are often ignored in the overcrowded trains.
He said in Thursday’s tragedy, it was cooking oil carried on the train by a group of Islamic missionaries known as Tableeqi-e-Jamaat that had caught fire after the initial cooking stove exploded, contributing to the extent of the blaze and its speedy progress.
Train accidents in Pakistan are often the result of poor railway infrastructure and official negligence. Media reports on Thursday suggest that railways officials did not notice when passengers boarded the train, carrying individual gas stoves.
Officials said they were still trying to identify the victims and that the lists of fatalities and those injured were not ready yet.
Yasmin Rashid, a provincial minister in Punjab, told reporters that the medical staff was providing the best possible treatment for the injured at a hospital in Liaquatpur.
Those critically injured will be taken ambulances to the city of Multan, the largest city nearest to the site of the accident.
The train was on its way from the southern port city of Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province, to the garrison city of Rawalpindi when the blaze erupted, said Ahmed, the deputy commissioner.
President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan issued statements expressing their sorrow over the tragedy.
Khan took to Twitter to offer his condolences to the families of those killed and say he was praying for the speedy recovery of the injured. He also ordered an urgent investigation into the incident.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.