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Egypt Train Fire Raises Questions about Safety Standards - 2002-02-21

The final death toll in what is being called the worst train accident in Egypt's history stands at 370. The train caught fire early Wednesday morning on its way from Cairo to southern Egypt. The tragedy has raised questions about the safety standards on Egypt's second and third-class trains, which are used mainly by poorer Egyptians.

Egyptian officials say a small portable gas stove is probably responsible for igniting the tragic fire on the second and third-class passenger train.

Government officials have reacted to critics who have charged the train was unsafe. Prime Minister Atef Obeid, who went to the scene, said the train was in good condition and had no mechanical problems.

But one survivor, a 26-year-old housewife, decried the condition of the train, describing the cars as better suited for animals than people.

Other reports blame many of the deaths on the crowded condition of the train, which was crammed with families leaving Cairo for a few days to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice). Survivors say many people were sitting on the floor and some had even managed to squeeze themselves into the overhead luggage racks.

Ahmed al Sherif, director of Egypt's railway authority, has acknowledged the train was overcrowded. He said it is still not clear why the train's emergency brakes were not applied immediately after the fire began. Though seven of the 11 cars of the train were engulfed in flames, it traveled four kilometers before coming to a halt. Mr. al Sherif speculated that, given the chaotic conditions on the train, the passengers may not have been able to find the brakes. But some passengers have disputed this explanation, saying the cars did not have emergency brakes.

The train, used by poorer Egyptians, left Cairo just after midnight Wednesday morning on its daily journey south to Luxor and Aswan. Police said a short while after leaving Cairo, a fire broke out in one of the cars and then quickly spread to several others.

Upon seeing flames, conductor Mansour Youssef El-Qams said he ordered his crew to separate the flaming cars from the rest of the train, but the fire spread too quickly. The train's windows were wide open and the incoming wind fanned the flames.

Charred human remains were found curled under seat cars, pressed up against barred windows. Some bodies were found on the tracks after failed attempts to jump to safety.