A raging fire has swept through a train in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab Province, killing 74 people.
Survivors said it took nearly 20 minutes for the train to stop amid contradictory reports about the condition of the train’s brakes.
Three carriages were consumed by flames from a fire caused by a cooking gas stove and dozens of people jumped in panic from the speeding train.
Conductor Sadiue Ahmed Khan said the train’s emergency braking system was in perfect working order and the train stopped within three minutes after the first signs of fire.
“This is the worst tragedy in my life as a driver,” he said.
Investigators said they will be looking at the train’s braking system to determine its condition at the time of the fire.
Survivors recounted pulling at emergency cords that weave through the train to notify the conductor, but they said the train continued to speed down the tracks.
Ghulam Abbas, a passenger who had got on the train in the town of Nawabshah in neighbouring Sindh Province with his wife and two children, echoed other passengers who said it took nearly 20 minutes for the train to stop.
He recounted watching panicked passengers jumping off the speeding locomotive.
“We learned afterwards that most of them had died,” he said.
Mr Abbas’s wife, Sulai Khan Bibi, said she was horrified what would happen to their two small children.
“We were so close to death, but Allah saved us,” she said, clutching the children.
The train, which was travelling from the southern Arabian Sea port city of Karachi to Rawalpindi, just 10 kilometres (six miles) from the federal capital, was carrying 857 passengers.
Most of the dead were members of Tableeqi-e-Jamaat, an organisation of Islamic missionaries.
The fire was believed to have started in their compartment.
Mufti Wahab, a district chief of the Tableeqi-e-Jamaat, said as many as 52 members of his organisation were “martyred because of the fire”.
The fire apparently started after one of several small stoves brought on to the train by the Tableeqi members exploded, setting other gas cylinders used to fuel the stoves on fire, said deputy railways commissioner Jamil Ahmed.
Flames roared through the train engulfing three carriages as it approached the town of Liaquatpur in Punjab.
Survivors recounted horrific scenes of fellow passengers screaming as they jumped through windows and off the train, flames billowing from the carriages.
“We could hear people crying and screaming for help,” said Chaudhry Shujaat, who had boarded the train just a few hours earlier with his wife and two children.
“I thought we would die. The next car was on fire. We felt so helpless.”
Kaleem Ullah, an official with the district emergency services, said of the 43 people injured, 11 were still in a critical condition.
Several of them had jumped off the train – many to their deaths – after the fire broke out and before it eventually screeched to a halt, said Mr Ahmed.
In Pakistan, poor passengers often bring their own small gas stoves on the trains to cook their meals, despite rules to the contrary, according to railways minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
Safety regulations are often ignored in the overcrowded trains.
President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan issued statements expressing their sorrow over the tragedy.
Mr Khan took to Twitter to offer his condolences to the families of those killed and say he was praying for the speedy recovery of the injured.
He also ordered an urgent investigation into the incident.
Train accidents in Pakistan are often the result of poor railway infrastructure and official negligence.
Media reports on Thursday suggest that railways officials did not notice when passengers boarded the train, carrying individual gas stoves.
In July, a passenger train rammed into a freight train at Walhar railway station in the district of Rahim Yar Khan, killing at least 20 people and injuring 74.
A month earlier, a passenger train travelling to the eastern city of Lahore from the port city of Karachi collided with a freight train in the southern city of Hyderabad, killing three people.