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Toll May Reach 300

January 14, 1985

BHERAMARA, Bangladesh (AP) _ Local officials estimated today that between 150 and 300 people died in a fire that burned for a half hour in three cars of a crowded express train, but the government said it has confirmed only 27 deaths.

The fire started from a short-circuit in the mail van Sunday morning just after the Samanta Express left Puradaha station and spread to the other two coaches, railway sources and witnesses said. The three cars were crammed with 500 passengers, said a local correspondent for the mass circulation Bengali- language newspaper Ittefaq.

The train stopped about a quarter-mile from Bheramara, in the Kushtia district, 155 miles north of the capital, Dhaka.

Railway sources said the exit doors of the packed passenger compartments were almost totally blocked by sacks of clothing carried by traders, and the fabric may have helped spread the blaze.

Official sources said the passengers’ attempts to stop the train failed because the train’s alarm system did not work.

But a junior railway official in Bheramara said engineers do not stop trains along the 31-mile route from Pudahara because of frequent robberies. There were reports that a college student, Shahidul Huq Babla, managed to stop the train by climbing on the roof and running to the front to inform the engineer.

The sub-district administrative officer of Bheramara estimated the death toll at 200 to 300 today, while the deputy commissioner of Kushtia said the figure would go beyond 150. Jalal Ahmed, the railway station master at Kushtia, said shortly after the fire broke out that 150 were feared dead and 300 were injured.

Government officials in Dhaka, the capital, said they estimated 27 people had died based on remains found in the ashes of the coaches. They said at least 58 people were injured, three seriously.

Bazlur Rahman, 40, who saved himself by jumping out a window of the moving trian, said from his hospital bed in nearby Kushtia, ″When I saw smoke, I thought it was from the butt of a cigarette. After some time, the whole compartment was engulfed by smoke. The passengers were shouting and crying for help. I pulled the chain several times, but the train did not stop. Then I jumped through the windows.″

One Bheramara citizen said additional lives were lost because of a lack of fire-fighting facilities at the Bheramara station. Another said firemen had to be rushed in from Kushtia, while the crowd at the station helplessly watched the train burn.

Abubkaer Khan, a passenger whose 14-year-old son was among those reported missing, told reporters in Bheramara that at least 200 people were jammed into his coach and most of them died. He said he survived because someone pushed him out the window.

Government officials said the engineer and four other railroad employees had been suspended and an investigation of the fire has been ordered.

The train was on its way from the port city of Khulna, 219 miles southwest of Dhaka, to Parabatipur, 232 miles north of Dhaka on the Indian border.

The train contained 19 coaches, the first seven of which were carrying soldiers to Dinajpur and Ranzpur, areas of tension between Bangladeshi and Indian border guards. The army coaches were not affected by the fire.

Update hourly