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‘We saw doomsday and hell'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 03 - 2019

It is Thursday, 28 February. Twenty-six hours ago a speeding train hit the cement blocks at the end of platform six of Ramses Station before exploding. Tens of people were killed, and more injured: passengers waiting to board their train to Alexandria, passers-by and station workers.
According to the Ministry of Transportation, the locomotive had been left unattended by the driver, who left his cabin to argue with another railway worker. At Ramses Station some workers echo the official story while others suggest the accident was a result of error combined with poor train maintenance.
The driver — now detained pending investigations — offered his version of events on a primetime TV satellite channel talk show. He said the problems began when he was allocated a poorly maintained locomotive without a co-driver on a badly monitored section of track. The result was a collision with another train. That was when the driver abandoned his cabin. But his train did not have automatic breaks, and as he was remonstrating about the collision the train he had been driving began to move, picking up speed for over 2km before it hit the buffers at the station.
He tried, and failed, to contact the control room via mobile phone.
The tragic accident brought a flurry of criticism over the safety of the railways, and hours after the announcement of the disaster Minister of Transportation Hisham Arafat resigned.
The black burnt engine is still at the end of platform six. A little over a day since the crash and passengers are making their way to nearby platforms to take trains to Alexandria and towns in the Delta, from platforms one to five, or to Upper Egypt from platforms eight to 11.
“I had a ticket to go home to Sohag and I had many things to do. I decided to return when I knew the train service was operating,” says Nargess, an elderly lady. Though her son had said he would accompany her back to Upper Egypt she declined his offer.
“He worried that I would be too stressed, especially given that many people had initially thought it was a terrorist attack. I told him that his presence would not stop an accident, or an attack for that matter.
“If the authorities suspected it was a terrorist attack they would have cancelled all trains. They would not take the risk. Clearly they know it was an accident, though a tragic and heart-breaking one.”
Accidents have been a feature of the railway system for the past two decades. According to official statistics in 2017 alone there were 1,700 incidents.
Cairo train station is the oldest in Africa. The original structure was the terminal for the first rail link from Alexandria to Cairo in 1856. In 1955, the building was upgraded, and again in 2010. These most recent renovations were inaugurated in the winter of 2011.
Hassan, a ticket controller at the station, was there. He remembers thinking that it was pointless to refurbish the station's interior without also upgrading the trains “which had been subject to endless complaints, not just from passengers but also from railway workers who often said it was a miracle they survived some trips.
“People have always complained about the service. They complain about trains being delayed, about the levels of cleanliness on the trains and about the age of the locomotives. The one thing I never heard people complain about was the interior of the station,” says Hassan.
“I don't think it was a priority. What we really need to worry about is the state of the trains — some have been in service since before I started my job and I'm going to retire this year.
“What happened on Wednesday should not have happened. It was shocking. I still cannot get the scenes of people burning on the platform out of my head. We saw doomsday and we saw hell.”
When the runaway train's volatile fuel caught fire, people waiting on the platform were caught up in the fireball. Some died instantly. Others tried to escape.
Hassan speaks as he makes his way to platform eight, parallel to platform six, to ask colleagues about the latest news regarding the fate of missing railway employees. Passers-by look with horror at the site where people burned to death. He stops at a newspaper stand and speaks with Nouh who tells him Mina and Bishoi, two co-workers, that colleagues had been found dead. Their families had identified their bodies though DNA tests will be done before the bodies are released for burial. Five other colleagues are still missing.
“We are not sure if all the bodies were removed from underneath the burnt locomotive or not. The train will only be moved after the prosecution finishes its investigation,” says Nouh.
He falls silent as an elderly couple approaches. Both the man and woman have difficulty walking. They are the parents of one of their younger colleagues who served tea and coffee on platform six.
Nouh takes the couple to the control room where they can see CCTV footage of the platform before and during the accident. They discover their son was on the platform before all hell broke loose.
Mina breaks down, though he still manages, mechanically, to serve passengers who want to buy books or papers before they board their trains. His eyes are fixed on the elderly couple, returning from the control room.
Wael, another worker at the station, takes the man and woman to find a taxi to go and look for the body of their son. When he returns he says that they had looked at the CCTV recordings and seen their son caught in the fire.
“It has been this way all morning. People who had their relatives at the station have been arriving, terrified,” says Wael.
“This station is a world of its own. Some people come to travel, some come to say good-bye to relatives and some work here. It will take time before everyone is identified — if at all.”
Khaled knew of the tragic events before the 11am announcement on Egyptian TV. He had received a phone call from a family member.
“We have a wedding coming up in Alexandria and two of my cousins and their families were leaving. One family arrived early and were caught in the fire. The other family came a few minutes after the blast and were saved.”
Seven members of Khaled's family are either dead or severely injured.
“Two children are dead and their parents are in a coma in two different hospitals. We couldn't identify the bodies at the hospitals they were first moved to. We did the DNA tests and are hoping to receive the bodies but we have to wait for the forensic authorities to finish,” he says as he stands by the Zeinhom morgue.
A steady stream of grieving men and women arrive to inspect the bodies that have been moved from hospitals and the Cairo train station.
Zeinab says she has been unable to find her brother at any of the hospitals to which she was directed. She is here as a last resort.
“God knows, they say some bodies were so burned they fell into ashes,” she says through her tears.
At Al-Dmerdash hospital Ahmed Al-Badawi, head of plastic surgery and the burns unit at Ain Shams University, is “racing to give a chance” to a 57-year-old with 90 per cent burns.
“The burns interrupted the blood flow and we had to do surgery to restore the circulation to his arms and legs. Now we are trying to fix the lungs. He is on a breathing machine and he is on the maximum dosages of medication. He was very close to the blast and we are not sure of his chances,” says Al-Badawi.
He is more optimistic about the chances of a 47-year old with 60 per cent burns, mostly on his lower body.
“He wasn't brought to the hospital by ambulance. Someone brought him to the hospital and he was fully conscious. He will need surgery but we think that he will get better. He is not in intensive care and is receiving psychological support to help with the trauma.”
According to a source at the Ministry of Health, more than half of the people injured are in a critical condition. “Those who survive will need extensive plastic surgery. The injuries are life changing,” she says.
People waiting outside the Zeinhom morgue say the volume of casualties and severity of the injuries are testimony to the inadequacy of emergency services at the Cairo train station. Had fire extinguishing facilities been available, and medical help more speedy, some of the dead might have been saved, they argue.
Many workers at Cairo station agree. They have complained repeatedly about the lack of emergency planning, they say, yet nothing has been done.
Passengers, too, are fully aware that most of the trains they take are old and in really bad shape but in the end they say they cannot do without them.
“How else am I supposed to travel from Aswan to Cairo every other week. I cannot afford the expensive trains so I take the cheap ones. I don't think about it. I prefer to read a book rather than to think of things I have no control over,” says Amin.
Amin has just bought an Arabic translation of Dan Brown's bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code.
“It is always interesting to try and solve the mystery and get to know the killer — the real killer,” he says.
Amin bought the book for LE80 from a newspaper stand not far from the scene of the blast. “The man,” he says, “told me he could have died in the blast but he left early because he felt unwell. People talk about the disaster; they speculate about what might have happened, but life goes on. What can we do? Not much. We can just pray to be saved.”
In his statements to the talk show given while in police custody Alaa Fathi, the driver of the locomotive, said he would have never thought that this was going to happen when he got off the train. He acknowledged his mistakes but insisted the blame was not entirely his, and he should not shoulder complete responsibility for “such a poorly run and poorly maintained railway system”.
On Sunday acting Minister of Transport said that ministry is committed to upgrade the railways. In late 2018 , official statements suggested that around 300 million train tickets are sold annually.


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