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Passengers ride out-of-control train for 25 minutes

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

MSAGALI, Tanzania -- What started as a slow roll backward for a passenger train crossing central Tanzania accelerated into a screaming, 25-minute runaway ride that ended when it crashed into a lumbering freight train at about 125 mph, survivors and officials said Tuesday.

By late Tuesday, 174 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage.

Survivors from the Monday morning crash described how most of the 1,200 people on board were praying -- some quietly, some loudly -- while others screamed as the train swayed from side to side, throwing luggage out of the overhead bins and knocking people down as they tried to run for the doors.

The cross-country trip began when the train pulled out of Dar es Salaam, the eastern Indian Ocean port city, Sunday night, bound for Mwanza in the west. At some point the train stopped on the crest of a hill because of engine problems and mechanics tried to make repairs, the train's crew told local officials Tuesday.

Then the brakes failed and the train began rolling backward, survivors said.

Pushed by the weight of the now freewheeling engine, the train's 20 coaches accelerated down the rolling, semiarid hills in central Tanzania at about 7:30 a.m.

"There were people shouting 'We are dying, We are dying,"' said Joyce Mwinani, who was on her way home from a Christian Evangelical meeting. "Some were singing praise songs until the train overturned."

After 25 chaotic minutes, Lwangisa said the last thing he remembered before he lost consciousness was being thrown forward and a deafening roar of crunching metal.

Ole Saitabau, the district commissioner in neighboring Kongwa, said investigators estimate the train traveled 12 miles and reached 125 mph before it rammed into the back of a slow-moving freight train going the same direction near Msagali, 190 miles west of Dar es Salaam.

Piled up and twisted into a huge knot of wreckage, many of the decades-old maroon and tan train coaches were barely recognizable after the crash. Volunteers were having trouble getting inside the crumpled carriages because they were smashed together like crushed soft drink cans.

In one mangled coach, the bloody hands, legs, heads and torsos of at least a dozen men, women and children -- crushed together -- protruded through smashed windows.

Dr. John Mtimba, the regional medical officer in Tanzania's political capital of Dodoma, said 174 bodies had been recovered by midday Tuesday and 924 people had been hurt. Bodies were being taken to a local sports stadium for identification, he said.

Thousands of people gathered at a local sports stadium to identify the bodies of victims laid out on green mats in groups -- men, women and children.

Lwangisa was one of the lucky ones. He said he was pulled out of the wreckage through a window just hours after the accident Monday morning.

Rescuers used a crane Tuesday morning to try to rip apart the mangled carriages while soldiers wearing surgical gloves -- or just socks on their hands -- helped remove the dead. By Tuesday afternoon, there was little hope of finding anyone else alive.

President Benjamin Mkapa, with tears in his eyes, toured the scene Tuesday afternoon, encouraging the people helping to pull apart the wreckage as he walked past eight bodies laid out next to the wreckage under colorful cloth fabrics.

"It's a national tragedy, we have not had anything like it before," he said, promising an official inquiry as he stepped over the passenger's scattered belongings. "All the indications are that it's an accident, an accident we were powerless to prevent."

All but one of the passenger train's 20 coaches derailed and overturned, said Sukulu Sudi, a spokeswoman for the state-run Tanzania Railways Corporation. The train's 11 third class coaches each carried about 80 passengers, the six second coaches each had about 48 passengers and the three first class coaches each carried about 16 passengers, she said.

Sudi said Railway officials were still unsure what caused the accident but had launched an investigation.

Jacob Chembla, the acting doctor in charge of Dodoma Hospital, said the situation had calmed at the hospital by Tuesday afternoon, with many of the survivors being sent home after being treated for minor injuries, such as cuts and sprains.

However, 142 people had been admitted with more serious injuries. He couldn't say how many of those admitted remained in critical condition.


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