Fire whipped by strong winds raced through a train packed with Egyptians heading home for a Muslim holiday early today, killing at least 370 people in the country's worst rail disaster.
The inferno forced passengers to leap from speeding cars. Scores more were trapped inside, some by window grills, as the burning train barreled along the tracks. The engineer drove 2 1/2 miles before learning of the fire, and even after he brought the train to a halt, the fire burned for hours, destroying seven of the train's 11 cars.
The cause of the fire was not known, but investigators said they were looking at the possibility that the fire was ignited by gas containers that passengers often bring with them to cook food or make tea on the long journey.
Ahmed Adil, the Health Ministry undersecretary, put the death toll at 370. Police said 65 people were being treated for injuries.
That made it the deadliest train accident ever in Egypt and one of the worst in the world. In 1989, more than 600 people were killed when a gas pipeline explosion blew apart two trains in Russia's Ural Mountains.
The train was headed south from the capital, Cairo, along the edge of the Nile Valley. Survivors said it was so full that passengers were sitting on the floor. Ahmed Sherif, director of the state-owned Egyptian Railway Authority, also said the train was overcrowded, with about 1,200 people on board.
Along with some families, most of the passengers were men working in Cairo heading to their home villages to see their families for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or "feast of sacrifice." For the four-day holiday, which begins Friday, Egyptians traditionally bring gifts, particularly new clothes for children.
Sherif said the train left Cairo on its 300-mile journey to Luxor at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the fire broke out about 90 minutes later. The train traveled in flames for 2 1/2 miles before stopping at Reqa al-Gharbiya, a village 60 miles south of Cairo. Sherif said it was not clear why the emergency brakes were not applied immediately.
Train driver Mansour Youssef Qams, 46, said that when he saw the flames, he stopped the train and ordered his crew to uncouple the burning cars, the Middle East News Agency said.
An hour later, the train continued on its way to Minya, 75 miles south, leaving the burned cars behind, the driver said, according to Egypt's al-Jumhuriyah newspaper. It was not immediately clear why he resumed the journey.
Electricity in the train went out in the moments after the fire, leaving confused and frightened passengers in darkness, witnesses said. The cars had metal frames with wooden seats, and witnesses saw passengers, some on fire, running from car to car.
The fire appeared to have broken out in the fourth car, which was the most badly burned. Investigators were looking into gas cylinders and small stoves passengers often bring, despite regulations forbidding it. In addition, passengers were probably smoking.
"They should have checked the train before starting the journey," said Aida Mehana, 26, a housewife who survived the fire with minor injuries. "These are people's souls, or do they only care about theirs? The train is like a stable for animals, it is trash."
Said Fuad Amin, 22, a construction worker who jumped from the burning train, said the first signs of trouble were shouts and screams. He thought there was a fight, but then saw people running, including a woman whose clothes were on fire.
Amin ran, too, until he found a window broken open. He hesitated at first because the train was moving fast.
"I thought I was going to die anyway, so I jumped," he said. It was the last thing he remembered before waking up in the nearest hospital, in the town of El-Aiyat, 12 miles north. He was treated for a broken hand and a suspected concussion.
Other jumpers did not survive -- ambulance workers say 40 bodies were recovered from along the tracks.
Maher Abdel Wahid, the prosecutor general, who led a team of investigators to the scene, said that if his 25 investigators and 45 coroners determined "there was any kind of negligence, and that's what we are looking into, the punishment will be severe."
The Muslim Brotherhood, the banned movement that is Egypt's main opposition group, called for an investigation into the "gross negligence that led to this tragic incident."
The Brotherhood has in the past won praise from Egyptians for its disaster relief efforts. The government, wary of the group's popularity, several years ago banned nongovernmental organizations from providing emergency aid. Mohammed Mersi, head of the Brotherhood faction in parliament -- whose members are officially independents -- said the group would abide by the aid ban but study what else it could do to help.
After the fire, security forces were out in large numbers, some ringing the hospital in El-Aiyat, where most survivors and many bodies were taken, apparently for fear of an angry reaction from relatives and survivors. There were no protests, however.
This afternoon, a warning siren blared repeatedly in Reqa al-Gharbiya as workers placed bodies, many burned beyond recognition, into ambulances.
Corpses had melded together in piles on the train. Among charred luggage collected nearby, a Bible, children's clothing and what appeared to be a wedding dress could be seen.
Mosques were opened to survivors and villagers supplied blankets, food and hot drinks to the stranded passengers.
The rail line linking Cairo with southern Egypt was closed indefinitely. The Egyptian Railway Authority has been plagued by overstaffing and old equipment. It relies on state subsidies to operate some 1,300 trains every day, keeping fares low for poor Egyptians.