By: Mir M.Hosseini
A 51-car train rolled out of a switchyard and eventually reached a speed of more than 140 km/hr before it derailed, caught fire and exploded, killing at least 320 people and injuring hundreds more near Neishabour. It's not been clear whether negligence or brake failure caused the accident. An iron wedge used to secure the wheels of the lead car was broken, and it was unclear if brakes on individual cars were working or not. As rescuers choking on fumes managed to extinguish flames that burned for nearly 24 hours, at least 460 people were found wounded.
The train loaded with cargo including gasoline, fertilizers, sulfur and cotton somehow started rolling from a station before dawn on Wednesday and continued on a downward slope going about 140 km/hr and traveled for 50 kilometers before hitting a sharp turn at the next station where, all but three cars jumped the track and caught fire. The wrecked train burned for more than five hours before the hazardous mix of its contents exploded, killing firefighters, rescue workers, spectators and people in nearby villages shook by the force of the blast which was so powerful that windows were shattered as far as ten kilometers away. In an apparent indication of the explosion's force, Iranian seismologists recorded a 3.6-magnitude tremor in the area at the moment of the blast. The dead also included top city officials ; including Neishabour's governor, mayor and fire chief as well as the head of the energy department and the director-general of the provincial railways who had all gone to the site of the accident. It's possible that the rescue officials and railway workers were aware of the train's potentially volatile cargo, which was en route from central Asian countries to Iran's southern port of Bandar Abbas.
Only some of the train cars caught fire on derailing but firefighters did not realize that the blaze had caused some of the other wagons carrying fuel and other cargo to heat up and explode creating a 25 meter deep crater. A team of experts was dispatched to determine health hazards from the fumes. Many area residents complained of severe sore throats from the smoking wreck. Police sealed about one square km area around the blast scene near Neishabour, a historical city home to 170,000 people about 645 km east of Tehran on the route to Mashhad.
The clay-home village of Dehnow, which was closest to the blast at about 500 meters away, was flattened and many villagers were believed to have been killed. The rest appeared to have been evacuated. Casualties also were found in Hashemabad, Taghizadeh Abdolabad and other nearby villages. Many of the buildings that collapsed in a Dec. 26 earthquake in Bam, in southeast Iran, also were clay structures. That tragedy killed more than 41,000 people.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan conveyed his condolences to the Iranian government and victims of the disaster.