On Friday, at least 44 people were killed and 100 were injured when two train collided in a remote region of northern Iran, making it the country’s worst train disaster.
The accident occurred in sub-zero temperatures when a moving passenger train struck another parked at Haftkhan station about 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of the capital Tehran.
An express train operating from Tabriz in the northwest to Mashhad had stopped, Provincial governor Mohammad Reza Khabbaz said, initially suggesting the cause could have been mechanical failure or extreme cold, although it was later put down to human error.
“For some unknown reasons due to human fault, the train (from Semnan) was ordered to move and so it hit the other train from behind,” said Mohsen Poor-Seyed Aghaie, the head of Iranian railways.
The incident took place at Haf-Khan station near the city of Shahroud in Semnan province on the main line between Tehran and Iran’s second city Mashhad at around 7:40 am local time. Two coaches on the express burst into flames when a passenger train behind smashed into the back of it.
The front four coaches of the second train – running from Semnan to Mashhad — derailed and overturned. “One minute I was sleeping and the next I was being carried out of a coach on fire,” one hospitalized passenger told state television.
Television broadcast images of a huge column of black smoke and flames shooting into the sky from coaches with their windows shattered, as firefighters battled the blaze and rescue workers searched for victims.
The dead bodies were recovered. But the death toll may rise. The casualties from the crash were taken to nearby hospitals. The injured were airlifted to hospitals in Semnan and Damghan. 17 of the injured were treated for light injuries and released.
Four of the fatalities were railway employees who were onboard the two trains when the accident occurred, near the city of Semnan.
The province’s Red Crescent director, Hassan Shokrollahi, said the remote location of the crash site, between Semnan and Damghan, the next major town, had complicated rescue efforts. “Due to the difficulty of access, only our helicopter has managed to reach the scene,” he said. Television footage showed rescue teams working near the carriages on fire.
Head of Iran’s Red Crescent, Ali Asghar Ahmadi said ambulances and helicopters were sent to join the operation.
Seven rescue teams were dispatched to the site with helicopters and ambulances. A huge fire also broke out following the accident, further slowing down relief operations in subzero temperatures.
Khabbaz said the cause of the accident was under investigation. The Tehran-to-Mashhad line was briefly closed to allow the investigation.
Later on the day, President Hassan Rouhani issued a statement offering his condolences to the victims’ families and assigned senior vice-president Eshagh Janahgiri to lead an investigation and identify those responsible for the incident.
The minister for roads and urban development, Abbas Akhoundi, postponed his visit to Turkmenistan to visit the site of the accident.
A parliament representative for the region, Gholam Reza Kateb, hinted that the head of the Semnan train station may have mistakenly allowed the train to proceed prematurely.
In the country’s deadliest rail disaster, 328 people were killed when a train transporting sulfur, petrol and fertilizers exploded in northern Iran on February 18, 2004.