“We have 59 confirmed dead. The toll can rise,” State Police Chief Suresh Arora told Reuters, adding that emergency officials were trying to determine the extent of the disaster on the outskirts of the city of Amritsar in the state of Punjab.
A witness at the scene saw bodies of victims strewn about the tracks, and friends and relatives standing around in shock, many sobbing and appearing distraught.
An officer in the police control room said that confirming the death toll was difficult because body parts were scattered around the scene.
ANI, a domestic news agency, reported that the chief medical officer of the civil hospital in Amritsar said 60 people had been killed and at least 51 injured. Reuters could not immediately confirm that death toll.
Police said that it was a “freak accident” and that people had not heard the train approaching because of the din of the festivities and fireworks.
During the festival of Dussehra, people all over the country set aflame large effigies of a 10-headed demon from the Hindu epic Ramayana in a ceremony that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
In Amritsar, video footage showed that the effigy of the demon Ravana had just been lit and firecrackers were going off when the train plowed into the crowd while people were craning their necks and applauding the show.
ANI reported that a witness at the scene said the train was moving fast.
Amarinder Singh, Punjab’s chief minister, said he was rushing to Amritsar to supervise response operations there.
“We have also ordered an inquiry as to why this incident has taken place,” Singh told ANI, adding that he did not know why the Dussehra celebrations were being held so close to the railway tracks.
Singh declared a state of mourning and said all offices and educational institutions across the state would remain closed Saturday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was deeply saddened by the incident.
“The tragedy is heart-wrenching,” he tweeted. “My deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and I pray that the injured recover quickly. Have asked officials to provide immediate assistance that is required.”