Blast danger recedes at Iran train disaster site
Firemen Thursday extinguished the last blazes on a runaway freight train loaded with fuel and chemicals that blew up in eastern Iran and killed nearly 300 people, allowing rescue workers to start digging for more victims.
Revolutionary guards cordoned off a wide area around the disaster site overnight due to fears of further blasts and pollution, leaving relief teams helpless to search the rubble of shattered mud houses for more bodies.
But at dawn the head of the Khorasan province emergency headquarters, Vahid Barakchi, told Reuters: "There have not been any further explosions since last night and the danger of further explosions has disappeared."
"Firefighters have given the all-clear. There is no danger and rescue teams need only wear ordinary masks," he said.
Authorities decreed a day of mourning in Iran's northeastern province as the dead -- many of them firemen, security forces and local officials -- were to be buried in the nearest town, Nishapur.
Speaking by mobile phone from a crater ripped open by Wednesday's massive blast, Barakchi said the death toll stood at 295 with some 450 people injured, and more corpses might be found beneath the ruins of a devastated village.
Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Engineers began lifting the mangled wreckage of 51 wagons that broke loose and hurtled downhill until the train derailed and caught fire from the main Tehran-Mashad rail line.
Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khorram told the local Khorasan daily the cause of disaster had not yet been determined. Repairs were expected to take three days.
Some initial reports said the wagons were detached by earth tremors, but officials said the explosion, which sent shock waves felt some 70 km (40 miles) away in the city of Mashad, was so massive that it may have been confused with an earthquake.
Barakchi said the lethal cocktail of gasoline and fertilizer had polluted the nearest village, Deh-e No Hashemabad. Three other villages were devastated by the blast.
The wagons had first caught fire and attracted crowds of bystanders who were then engulfed with firefighters in a massive explosion.
Doctors called for supplies of blood to treat the hundreds who were injured, many of them scorched black and pulverized by Wednesday's fiery chemical blast.
The force of the explosion razed village homes to the ground, crushing their inhabitants under crumbled mud brick walls and shattering windows far around.
"The earth shook. We thought it was an earthquake. We were so scared," said Ali, 42, from Nishapur, 20 km (13 miles) from the scene in the saffron-growing province of Khorasan, bordering Afghanistan and ex-Soviet Turkmenistan.
Photographs showed the blast site strewn with shredded torsos, clothes ripped from their bodies, and severed limbs.
Ali Soleimani said he found the body of the governor of Nishapur: "I pulled out the corpse of the governor myself. He had no legs and was sliced to bits."
The disaster came amid political uncertainty in Iran, ahead of parliamentary elections Friday overshadowed by a bitter dispute over the mass disqualification of reformist candidates.
The country is still recovering from a December earthquake that killed over 40,000 people in the ancient city of Bam, some 650 km (400 miles) to the south.
In the worst rail crash of the last quarter century, at least 575 people died in June 1989 when two passenger trains in Russia's Ural mountains were engulfed in an explosion from a leaking gas pipeline.