Scores Die in Congo Train Derailment

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 3, 2007

NAIROBI, Aug. 2 -- At least 68 people were killed when an eight-car freight train derailed Wednesday night in a remote area of Congo, a calamity exacerbated by the problems plaguing the vast central African country: poor roads, a lack of rescue equipment, inadequate hospitals and limited electricity.

In a country where public transport means hitching onto anything with wheels, hundreds of people were on top of the dilapidated train, hanging on to its sides or squeezed inside when an apparent mechanical failure caused all eight cars to jump the tracks, U.N. officials said Thursday.

"The scene is very chaotic," Alexandre Essone, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo, said Thursday night. "Bodies are lying all over. People are still jammed between the wagons, some at the knees with their heads hanging out."

Essone said that he had counted 68 bodies but that the death toll was sure to rise because "scores" of people remained trapped under the heavy steel cars. A government spokesman told the Associated Press that "about 100" people were killed.

The train was traveling south from the town of Ilebo to Kananga, capital of Kasai-Occidental province in central Congo. It careened off the tracks around 11 p.m. Wednesday, about 150 miles north of Kananga in a forested area. U.N. officials dispatched a helicopter, doctors and equipment to the site, where a rescue operation hobbled along Thursday night.

More than 100 badly injured people were carried on handmade wooden bicycles or on people's shoulders to the nearest hospital, which is about eight miles away, Essone said. The hospital has only 22 beds.

"We are in a very, very, very closed area where there are no roads or infrastructure," Essone said. "So you can imagine the situation."

Congo, a country of about 900,000 square miles and more than 65 million people, has less than 500 miles of paved roads. The massive Congo River and a poorly maintained railway system left over from Congo's Belgian colonial era are the primary means of transport in the country.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company