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New blast threat keeps crews away from Iran train
Updated: 2004-02-19 09:08

Fear of further explosions left Iranian rescuers looking on helplessly on Thursday at the wreckage of a fuel-laden freight train that blew up and killed about 300 people, many of them fire crews.

A cordon of troops ensured medics and investigators kept at least a half a mile from the charred, mangled remains of 51 wagons carrying a lethal cocktail of gasoline and fertilizer that hurtled down the tracks before derailing.

The wagons had first caught fire and attracted crowds of curious bystanders who were then engulfed with firefighters in a massive explosion felt more than 40 miles away.

"It is still not safe," one fire chief said, gesturing to plumes of smoke and flickering flames visible in the wintry night air above the scene near Nishapur in northeastern Iran.

The death toll stood at least 295, according to a document prepared by local officials and seen by Reuters.

Doctors called for supplies of blood to treat the hundreds more 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, 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.

Local man 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, two days ahead of parliamentary 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.

Officials said it was too early to say what caused the wagons to break free, but state news agency IRNA said tremors in the quake-prone region might have set them moving. Other reports said tremors may have simply been caused by the blast itself.

The investigation was hampered by the fires and the danger of further explosions at the site where overturned wagons lay jumbled beside the tracks, with homes just yards away.

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.

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.

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