At least 233 people have been killed in eastern India after two passenger trains derailed in an accident that also involved a collision with a freight train, according to officials.
The accident on Friday in Odisha state’s Balasore district – India’s deadliest rail incident in more than a decade – also left an estimated 900 people injured, Pradeep Jena, the state’s top civil servant, said on Saturday.
The death toll is expected to rise, Jena said.
More than 200 ambulances had been called to the scene of the accident and 100 additional doctors, on top of 80 already there, had been mobilised to get the wounded to hospital and care for those still at the scene.
Video footage showed rescuers climbing up one of the mangled trains to find survivors, while passengers called for help and sobbed next to the wreckage.
The collision occurred at about 7pm local time (13:30 GMT) on Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express, running from Bengaluru to Howrah, West Bengal, collided with the Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata to Chennai. Authorities have provided conflicting accounts on which train derailed first to become entangled with the other and have yet to make any statements about possible causes.
Debabrata Mohanty, editor at the Hindustan Times, told Al Jazeera that four livestock wagons on the train that left from Kolkata went off the track shortly before 7pm. “No one knows how it happened, but it was traveling at around 100 km/h,” he said.
Shortly after, the train coming from Bengaluru crashed into two of the derailed rail coaches. “But most of the casualties happened because this one particular train got derailed, not because of the two trains colliding,” Mohanty added.
An extensive search-and-rescue operation has been mounted, involving hundreds of fire department personnel, police officers and sniffer dogs. National Disaster Response Force teams were also at the site.
One survivor narrated his nightmare as he was jolted awake when the carriage he was sleeping in overturned.
“My sleep broke and 10-15 people fell on top of me,” he told reporters, as he sat on the ground in the dark, steps away from the crash site. “I hurt my hand and neck … I saw someone had lost their hand, someone had lost their leg … I got out of there and since then I have been sitting here.”
On Friday, hundreds of young people lined up outside a government hospital in Odisha’s Soro to donate blood.
“I am personally indebted and grateful to all the volunteers who’ve donated blood for a noble cause,” Jena wrote in a tweet.
Jena described it as a “violent and tragic accident involving three trains – two passenger trains and one goods train”.
The cause of the accident was being investigated, said Amitabh Sharma, a spokesperson for the Indian Railways. The details of the accident were not immediately clear, nor was the sequence of events.
Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is expected to visit the area on Saturday, said the priority was “removing the living to the hospitals. That’s our first concern – to look after the living”.
Sudhanshu Mani, former Indian Railways general manager, told Al Jazeera that investments had gone into track maintenance and other safety measures in recent years.
“Today’s accident is very unfortunate,” Mani said, adding that the number of casualties would be high due to number of people aboard the trains.
“But the number of accidents has come down and there are projects on the way to improve the safety even more,” he said.
There was no official confirmation of the total number of passengers on the trains.
Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents happen annually on India’s railways. In October 2018, a train ran over a crowd watching fireworks during a religious festival in northern India, killing at least 60 people and injuring dozens more on the outskirts of Amritsar, a city in Punjab state.
At least 146 people were killed in November 2016, when a passenger train traveling between the cities of Indore and Patna slid off the tracks. More than 200 people were injured.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said that rescue operations were under way and “all possible assistance” was being given to those affected.
Modi chaired a high-level meeting on Saturday and was due to visit the site of the accident later in the day, as well as the Cuttack Hospital where many of the injured were being treated, ANI news agency reported.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was rushing to the site of the crash on Friday, tweeted: “Will take all hands required for the rescue ops.”
Vaishnaw also announced compensation of about one million rupees ($12,000) to the families of those killed, $2,400 for those who had suffered “grievous” injuries, and $600 for people with “minor” injuries.
Several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, with most of them blamed on human error or outdated signalling equipment.
More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, travelling on 64,000km (40,000 miles) of track.