Multan, Pakistan — A massive fire caused by a gas stove erupted on Thursday on a train traveling in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province, killing at least 71 passengers, officials said. Flames roared through the train cars as the train approached the town of Liaquatpur in Punjab, they said, the latest tragedy to hit Pakistan's dilapidated, poorly maintained and mismanaged rail system.
Kaleem Ullah, an official with the district emergency services, said another 43 people were injured, with 11 still in critical condition.
Survivors said it took the train nearly 20 minutes to come to a halt after the fire broke out and passengers began screaming for help. Some pulled at emergency cords that weave through the train to notify the conductor.
Deputy Commissioner Jamil Ahmed said the death toll had risen steadily since the early morning. The fire broke out when a gas stove exploded as breakfast was being prepared on board, he added.
Several of the injured had jumped off the train - many to their deaths - after the fire broke out, said Ahmed.
One witness told Geo television some of those who jumped were on fire, according to the Reuters news agency.
Poor passengers often bring their own small gas stoves on the trains to cook their meals, despite rules to the contrary, said Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. Safety regulations are often ignored in the overcrowded trains.
He told Reuters many of the passengers were heading to a religious conference organized by the Tablighi Jamaat Sunni Muslim missionary movement.
Through the morning hours, rescue workers and inspectors sifted through the charred wreckage, looking for survivors and aiding the injured. Local Pakistani TV footage from the scene showed a huge blaze raging as firefighters struggled to get it under control.
Authorities said they were still trying to identify the victims and that the lists of fatalities and those injured were not ready yet. Another train was dispatched to bring the survivors to the city of Rawalpindi, they said.
Yasmin Rashid, a provincial minister in the Punjab, told reporters that the medical staff were providing the best possible treatment for the injured at a hospital in Liaquatpur.
Those critically injured will be taken ambulances to the city of Multan, the largest city nearest to the site of the accident.
The train was on its way from the southern port city of Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province, to the garrison city of Rawalpindi when the blaze erupted, said Ahmed, the deputy commissioner.
Pakistan's military said troops were also participating in the rescue operation. President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan issued statements expressing grief over the tragedy.
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.