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A pre-eid nightmare

Just two days before the Eid Al-Adha holiday, 373 people died when a train on its way from Cairo to Luxor caught fire early Wednesday

by Tarek Atia

(, February 21, 2002) 

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The midnight train from Cairo to Luxor was packed with thousands returning home for the holidays. Nearly four hundred of them would not make it.

Just a short way into the long journey -- about 50 kilometers from Cairo -- a fire broke out near the back of the train, quickly engulfing seven cars in flames. 

It took fifteen minutes for the driver to realize what was going on and stop the train. People had been jumping out of the burning train as it continued on its way. Some died that way. Others survived, and relayed the horrific scene to the world. 

The sight of the seven cars -- charred skeletons of steel -- told the gruesome story quite clearly: that most of the dead burned up with the train itself.

Ninety ambulances and sixty fire trucks rushed to the scene.

Three hundred and seventy-three people had died, the worst accident in Egyptian railway history. Investigators are searching for the cause of the fire. Was it an electrical short that quickly spread, or did it start when a passenger's "butagaz" stove suddenly exploded? 

These are the preliminary suspicions being reported at present. President Hosni Mubarak has called for a thorough investigation of what went wrong. The government, public and press anxiously await answers. 

One certainty in the case is that the train was clearly overcrowded. Whether that will be just the tip of the iceberg remains to be seen. 

Prime Minister Atef Ebeid -- at the scene of the tragedy with Health Minister Isamil Sallam -- said the injured would be receiving LE1000 each in immediate relief funds. Families of the deceased, he said, will get LE3000. 

Condolences have been sent to Egypt from around the world. receives outpouring of sympathy:
Rosemary writes:
My heart goes out to all who lost loved ones on the Cairo/Luxor train. No accident like this should ever happen! I have traveled on frequent occasions on your trains (not the tourist ones) and I would like to ask "why do you please not look after the people of your country, as well as you take care of the tourists?" No wonder so many direct their anger at us (tourists). You have a beautiful country and beautiful people, I ask the powers that be to please take better care of them. I know my sympathy will probably not reach those that need it, that is the people that travel on 'these' trains, but, I will say again how very very sad I am for them. I will travel again soon with them inshallah.
Judith Smith writes: Commiserations on the loss of lives today. This tragic event for your countrymen is felt by people all over the world. From a tourist with a love of your country.
Don Whiteside writes: My heart goes out to all the families and relatives affected by this tragedy. Take great strength from your heritage and those around you. You have a great country and great people.


Links to related stories on the web

A week after surviving the train fire, Abdel-Rahim Qenawi slipped under a train, in a separate accident, "and was killed." Reuters reports this tragic tale.

Investigators conclude small passenger stove started train fire, rebutting earlier electric short theory

New railway chief says overcrowding cannot be controlled: "There is no law that allows the authority to prevent any passenger from getting into the car, everyone has the right to board and we cannot object to that." 

Tantawi leads mass burial prayers

220 bodies identified; mass burial on Sunday..

Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal donates $830,000 to families of the dead.

Relative of victim: "They leave the trains of the poor ... looking like carts."

BBC: Electrical short-circuit was the main cause of the fire; carriages were not equipped with fire alarms, extinguishers, or emergency brakes or windows...

US President Bush: "Laura and I and all of the American people offer our deepest sympathy and condolences to President Mubarak, the Egyptian people, and especially to those families who have lost loved ones"

Mass burial delayed...

Transport minister Ibrahim El-Demiery and the head of the state railways both resign... 

President Hosni Mubarak discusses accountability on state television on Friday: "I will not allow any effort to hide the truth or cover up any aspect of what happened, because the calamity is great, the accident grave... We have ordered competent authorities to conduct a complete investigation to clearly determine responsibility and to hold accountable anyone proved to have fallen short in their duties or who were careless in providing safety."

AP and the Washington Post look at conditions on third class rail.

LA Times speaks to Giza governor: "Asked whether he was upset at the lack of fire exits, or the overcrowding, or the decision of the engineer to keep going, he dismissed such concerns, although he said the officials obviously cared because they had come to the scene.
When Abu Leia finished speaking, an overcrowded third-class train passed by on the southbound tracks. People were standing in the aisles and sitting in the doorways."
Later, in the same story, a young man says, "The government should have better safety measures on trains... They take better care of tourists. We want them to take care of us too."

Families go to morgue to identify remains

Front page of opposition Al-Wafd, quoted by AP: "Put those responsible on trial whoever they are... This is more than gross negligence. We need to know who was responsible and hang them in public squares and curse them for what they have done to the helpless Egyptian people."

BBC: Security forces on alert

Survivor: "I don't know how I can live with all this death"

AP quotes the Prosecutor general as saying that if his 25 investigators and 45 coroners determined "there was any kind of negligence... the punishment will be severe."


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