By Jose Kavi
New Delhi, Oct. 19, 2018: Catholic bishops joined political and social leaders in India to express shock and grief over a “tragic railway accident” that killed more than 60 people in Punjab state’s Amritsar, the holy city of Sikhism.
While condoling the death of “our brothers and sisters,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) noted that the victims met with their “an untimely” end while engaged in celebrating their religious festival, Dussehra.
“May God grant them eternal rest. Our hearts go out to the many families who are left inconsolable this evening mourning the loss of their dear ones,” said a press note from CBCI secretary general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas.
According to reports, the tragedy occurred at 6:45 pm when a large number of people stood along the railway tracks to watch the Ravana effigy going up in flames as part of the Dussehra celebrations. At least 61 people were killed and 74 wounded after the train mowed down people at Joda Fatak level crossing.
As the fireworks went off, some people, in order to avoid high flames, started retreating towards the tracks where a huge crowd was already standing to watch the event.
A crowd of around 300 people was watching the effigies being burnt when the speeding passenger train rolled down the tracks, senior police officer Lakhbir Singh told reporters.
According to a video of the tragic accident, many victims were shooting videos on their mobile phones or taking selfies when the mowed them down.
It appears from multiple accounts that people didn’t hear the approaching train as the effigy of Ravana burnt and the area resonated with the sound of the firecrackers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was extremely saddened by the train accident. “The tragedy is heart-wrenching,” he tweeted offering his condolences to the bereaved families. He has asked officials to provide immediate assistance required.
Punjab has declared a state of mourning and order closure of all educational institutions on October 20.
“All offices and educational institutions will remain closed,” Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said late night. The chief minister, who announced 500,000 rupees for families of the dead, has cancelled his official visit to Israel in view of the tragedy.
Bishop Mascarenhas said the Indian Church joined in the families’ sorrow and pray to God for comfort and consolation. “May God grant complete healing to those injured in the accident,” Bishop Mascarenhas added.
He assured prayers and support of the Catholic community to all engaged in providing relief and succor to the victims and their families.
“This tragedy once again underlines the need to enhance railway and road safety as well as enforcement of safety norms in the organization of celebrations as every life is precious and should be protected and safe guarded in every way,” the press note said.
Federal Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, who is in the US, tweeted that he had cancelled all his engagements and was heading back to India.
Navjot Kaur Sidhu, wife of Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, was the chief guest at the celebrations. She told news agency ANI that she had left the venue much before the accident took place. “I received a call about the tragedy just 15 minutes after I left,” she said. She then rushed to the hospital to help the survivors and families of the victims.
News agency PTI said according to officials, two trains arrived from opposite direction at the same time giving little opportunity to people to escape. However, Northern Railways told ANI there only one train passed through the area.