Iran freight train blast kills about 300 people
A runaway train laden with fuel and fertilizers plowed off the rails in northeastern Iran and blew up on Wednesday, killing about 300 people.
The dead were mainly curious local residents, as well as firefighters who had rushed to the scene to douse an initial blaze before the wagons exploded, state news agency IRNA said.
The death toll stood at 295, according to a document prepared by local officials for the Interior Ministry and seen by Reuters.
Nearby village homes were razed to the ground, crushing their inhabitants under crumbled mud brick walls.
At dusk, columns of black smoke could still be seen belching from the wreckage of the unmanned train of 51 wagons. An acrid smell of sulphur hung in the air hours after the blast that shattered windows for six miles around.
"The earth shook. We thought it was an earthquake. We were so scared," said Ali, 42, from Nishapur, a town 13 miles from the scene in the saffron-growing province of Khorasan, bordering Afghanistan and ex-Soviet Turkmenistan.
IRNA photographs showed the blast site strewn with shredded torsos, clothes ripped from their bodies, and severed limbs.
Ali Soleimani, a local resident, said he found the body of the governor of Nishapur, who IRNA reported as among the dead: "I pulled out the corpse of the governor myself, he had no legs and was sliced to bits."
IRNA said tremors in the quake-prone region might have set the wagons moving but officials said it was too early to say what caused the disaster.
The disaster comes amid political uncertainty, two days ahead of elections 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 400 miles further south.
A cordon of officers from the Revolutionary Guards stopped people approaching the blast scene. One fire chief, who declined to be named, said he feared more explosions.
"Three wagons full of gasoline have not exploded," he told Reuters. Police said they too expected further blasts.
Mangled pickup trucks littered the crash site and dazed onlookers stood around in one village on a dusty plain, with snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Overturned carriages lay jumbled beside the tracks, with homes just yards away. IRNA said homes in five villages were badly damaged by the blast.
Many of the scores of injured people had severe burns and doctors were appealing for blood donors, state media said.
As well as the governor of Nishapur, the head of the city's electricity board, the fire chief and a 26-year-old IRNA journalist were killed in the blast, IRNA said.
One official told the agency the dead included villagers and some of the more than 200 firefighters who were on the scene.
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.