Indian train inferno kills at least 26 people

NEW DELHI - Fire raced through an Indian train carriage packed with sleeping passengers on Saturday, killing at least 26 people, and forcing terrified passengers to smash windows in a frantic bid to escape.

Some passengers were able to break the train's toilet cabin windows, but other victims were overcome by the thick, swirling smoke and bodies were found heaped at the windows and doors.

"We woke up to the screams of 'fire, fire!'. Everybody was screaming," one survivor, identified as Patil, told The Press Trust of India news agency.

Another survivor, Sharad, recalled: "We were all asleep. All of a sudden, we all woke up to a burning sensation."

"There was chaos. We realised the bogie (carriage) was burning," Sharad said, adding he broke the glass pane of a toilet cabin enabling three people to escape.

"But I could not save my wife and maternal uncle," he said in tears.

Rescue officials said many bodies were charred beyond recognition and would have to undergo DNA tests to determine their identity.

"Rescue teams have so far recovered 26 bodies from the three-tier coach of the train while five of the eight injured have been admitted to hospital for emergency treatment," South Western Railway spokesman S. Biswas told AFP.

Two of the dead were children, officials said.

Forensic teams were on their way to the train site to collect body samples for analysis.

Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh expressed "shock and grief at the loss of life in the train accident in Andhra Pradesh" in a statement on his official Twitter account.

The carriage was gutted by the inferno and was a mass of twisted metal and melted plastic seats. Adjacent coaches also bore scorch marks, testifying to the ferocity of the fire.

There were conflicting reports about the number in the carriage with police saying 65 while national Railways Minister Mallikarjun Kharge said there were 67 people, sleeping six to a compartment.

Mr Kharge told AFP the blaze was believed to have been caused by an electricity fault.

India's underfunded, accident-prone rail network, one of the world's largest, is still the main form of long-distance travel in the huge country despite fierce competition from private airlines.

The coach caught fire in the pre-dawn hours as it travelled from the high-tech city of Bangalore to Nanded, 300 km from the Hyderabad city.

The exit doors of Indian trains are customarily locked at night, reports said, while the carriage windows are covered with bars, making escape all but impossible.

The toilet windows are the only ones that have no bars and the spaces and berths are narrow.

"We were suffocating because we couldn't get the windows open, the windows are really strong," one young man, who lost his cousin to the flames, told India's NDTV news.

The tragedy comes a little over a year after another train accident in the same state of Andhra Pradesh killed 32 people and shone the spotlight again on the Indian rail network's dismal safety record.

That train was also carrying sleeping passengers and was also attributed to an electrical fault.

It was not immediately known whether more bodies would be found, police said.

Initial relief efforts were hampered by winter fog, local reports said, while the first people to reach the blazing train carriage were from nearby villages.

Railways Minister Kharge said the railway board chairman would lead an inquiry into the cause of the accident and a more complete report would be issued later.

The engine driver stopped the train when he spotted flames about an hour away from Nanded, a police officer was quoted on The Hindu newspaper website as saying.

Rescue workers brought out the bodies as the smoke abated.

The prime minister said he had told railway and state government authorities "to extend all possible help to the victims in rescue and relief operations".

India's worst rail accident was in 1981 when a train plunged into a river in the eastern state of Bihar, killing an estimated 800 people.