Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Mourning innocence

Mohamed Abdel-Baky visits the scene of this week’s tragic bus-train collision that left
51 children dead

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Saturday at 7am Yehia Ali, a civil servant in his late 30s, received the worst phone call of his life. It was his cousin, telling him that a train had crashed into a school bus carrying his twin daughters. “I ran to the scene of the accident. My daughters’ bodies were in parts. With the help of my wife I identified them by their clothes,” Ali said in tears.  
The 13-year-old twins, Ayat and Iman, had asked their father the night before the accident to buy them new dresses following the exams. Ali promised that he would if they did well.
Egypt woke to the shocking news of a bus-train collision that left 51 children among the victims. The accident took place when a train crashed into a school bus in the village of Mandara, two kilometres from the town of Manfalout. Two adults, the bus driver and a female teacher, were also killed.
Mandara’s streets turned into a single funeral. Shops were closed. Village women dressed in black. Men refused to talk to the press. In this small community 18 mourning tents were erected.
Some families decided to delay wedding parties in sympathy with neighbours who had lost their children. “Any celebration is tasteless in these circumstances. I’ve put off my wedding party for 40 days,” said Ibrahim Abdel-Karim.

WHAT HAPPENED? The day of the accident began like any other. The driver, Mohamed, started at 6am, collecting children from four villages — Al-Salam, Al-Hawatka, Sakraa and Mandara — before heading to Bani Adi where their Azhari Al-Nour Islamic school is located.
“After his last stop at Mandara, and with 67 children on board, the driver began the one hour trip to school. The driver started to cross the railway lines. The crossing was open. Seconds later the train crashed into the bus,” said Mohamed Mansour, an eyewitness who works in a shop close to the crossing.
“The last thing I heard before the crash was the sound of the children singing.”
The train pushed the bus along the tracks for more than a kilometre and a half.
Hundreds of family members gathered at the scene of the accident. Only 43 of the victims have been named so far. Of these, six bodies took hours to be identified.
Eighteen children survived. Some are in Manfalout hospital while others were taken to Assiut University Hospital.
“Islamic Prophet Mohamed treated everyone equally, no body underestimate his brother,” read s sentence in one of the student’s homework notebooks left by the side of the railway tracks.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE: For five hours the government and presidency remained silent. At 1pm state TV announced the resignation of the minister of transport and the chief of the Railway Authority. Two hours later President Mohamed Morsi appeared, offering his condolences to the families of the victims and promising financial compensation as well as an immediate investigation into the accident.
“Those responsible will be held accountable,” he said in a three-minute speech.
Later Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and a delegation of officials, including the ministers of interior, health, education and insurance and social affairs, visited the scene of the tragedy. The delegation was prevented from entering Mandara by hundreds of angry villagers who gathered on the road and railway tracks, burning parts of tree trunks and firing automatic rifles in the air while chanting “Down with Morsi”.
Kandil instead visited some of the injured children in Assiut University Hospital. A few relatives of those killed met with Kandil in Assiut. During the meeting they demanded the speedy trial of those responsible and petitioned for a school to be built in Mandara so they would not need to send children outside the village to be educated.
The tardy official response to the accident became a focus of criticism.
“It is clear the Kandil government is unable to adequately respond to crises or to hold those responsible to account,” said Mohamed Abul-Ghar, chairman of the Social Democratic Party. “The government failed even to offer the injured decent medical care quickly enough.”
Other political parties also issued statements slamming the official response.
“The death of more than 50 children on Saturday is just one in a series of accidents caused by negligence,” said the Constitution Party.
“These catastrophic accidents are the result of the failure of past governments. That they continue is a sign the current government lacks the political vision necessary to take the kind of actions that can prevent them.”
Kandil’s government, said the 6 April Youth Movement, lacks the ability to face up to crises let alone hold those responsible to account.
On Sunday the government announced that compensation for each dead child will be LE50,000, and LE12,000 for those injured.
Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud ordered an investigation into the accident. Among the officials called for questioning are the resigned minister of transportation, the head of the Railway Authority and the crossing guard on duty at the time of the crash.

A HISTORY OF NEGLIGENCE: Many families of the victims blame the crossing guard for the accident. Egypt’s decrepit rail network depends on an outdated system that relies on manual switch operators rather than automated signalling. Under the manual system guards are expected to close crossings 10 minutes before the arrival of any train.
“I did not receive any signal from the tower guard that the train was coming. I would normally close the gate of the crossing after being requested to do so by the tower guard two kilometres before me,” detained crossing guard Sayed Abdu told the Assiut prosecutor during investigations.
Tower guard Hussein Hassan contradicted Abdu’s testimony, saying he called to inform the crossing guard of the approaching train many times via the internal phone network but no one picked up the phone.
Some eyewitnesses claim to have seen Abdu at a nearby café at the time of the accident.
“He was smoking shisha at a café near the crossing. I saw him,” says Kamal Osama. “The crossing gates were open all night.”
But the stories are often inconsistent. Saturday, claim some villagers, was Abdu’s first full day at the crossing, which would mean he was unfamiliar with the local train schedules.     
Youssef Beshri, the driver of train 165 which crashed into the school bus, told investigators he received no signal to stop.
“My speed was 120 kilometres per hour, less than the 140 km/h which is the maximum for the trains that do not make stops in the villages,” said Beshri.
The prosecution has found no evidence that the bus driver breached any safety rules despite claims made by some railway officials that the bus crossed while warning lights and sirens were sounding. And the assistant head of the Railway Authority in Upper Egypt stated categorically that the section of track where the accident took place is not equipped with sirens.
Crossing guards working at nearby villages told Al-Ahram Weekly that it may be impossible to prove who is responsible. Mohamed Meselhi, a guard in Dairut, points out that internal phones are not monitored. “There is no reliable paper work and no video or audio recording for internal communications,” says Meselhi, which means that in cases of conflicting testimony it is impossible to know who is telling the truth.
Mustafa Omran, who works at a crossing close to Mandara, notes that in the past three months two train accidents have occurred in Assiut and in both cases crossing guards were deemed to have been at fault.  
Investigations have, however, revealed that the bus carrying the children was in a decrepit state. Designed for a maximum of 29 passengers, it was carrying 67 at the time of the tragedy.
“We do not yet know who is directly responsible. What we can say, though, is that the catalogue of negligence in this case underlines that no value was accorded to the lives of these innocent children,” said one of the 40 prosecutors investigating the case.

MY SON WILL NOT BE BACK HOME TODAY: Al-Hawatka village is three kilometres from Mandara. It is home to Ashraf Hashim who ran to the rail tracks on Saturday morning when his wife called to tell him that a train had hit the school bus carrying three of their five children.
“I ran to the site of the accident looking for my sons,” says Hashim. Eventually he found them — Ahmed, Mohamed and Hashim — in the morgue.
Mohamed was in the elementary sixth grade.
“My oldest son knew the Quran by heart. He had a beautiful voice when reciting the Quran,” says his mother.
A few blocks from Hashim’s house lives the family of Assem Zakharia, one of the few survivors of the collision.
“When the accident happened Assem was sitting with his teacher, Hanaa. She died in front of him. Assem was her favourite pupil. He cannot forget seeing her die,” said Zakharia Osman, Assem’s father.

CHASING THE DREAM OF BEING A SCIENTIST: Osman says he will send his son back to the same school even though he will take the same route every day.
Why do so many parents send their children to Bani Adi village, and specifically to Al-Nour Islamic School?
It took more than 60 minutes to reach Bani Adi though it is only 27 kilometres from Mandara. The road is potholed and has a single lane. The small village, surrounded by mountains, is famous as “the citadel of education in Assiut”. It has 18 schools, the most per capita in Upper Egypt, says the Ministry of Education. Among its alumni are the former minister of information Ahmed Kamal Abul-Maged and former mufti Hussein Makhlouf.
Al-Nour Islamic school was eerily silent. All the classrooms were empty. Teachers were attending the funerals of their students and the school’s dean had been called for questioning by the Assiut prosecutor’s office.
“We lost the best kids from the nearby villages. They were extraordinary children. They had all memorised the Quran by the age of 11,” said teacher Hassan Mohamed. “Three pupils had won international awards, others local awards form Al-Azhar. They were our future.”
The private elementary school is owned by an Islamic charity. Potential pupils are carefully selected and only the brightest make it through the screening process, says Mohamed Makhlouf, deputy dean of the school.
“The children who come here to study do so with a dream — that they, like former pupils, will distinguish themselves on the national stage.”

Train tragedies

Saturday’s train crash in Assiut reflects the deterioration in Egypt’s railway sector. Over the last 20 years, thousands of Egyptians have been killed in train accidents as both the current and previous governments failed to implement the necessary road safety measures. Following are the most disastrous train accidents in Egypt in the last two decades:

- November 2012: Assiut train accident. Train crashes into a bus carrying school children at Mandara village crossing, killing 51, most of them children and injuring 17.
- October 2009: Collision at Al-Ayyat in Giza, 50 kilometres south of Cairo. According to a security official an initial report stated that 30 people were killed and 50 injured.
- September 2006: A passenger train collides with a freight train north of Cairo, killing five and injuring 30.
- August 2006: Qalioub rail crash. Two trains collide in the town of Qalioub, 20 kilometres northern Cairo, killing 57 people and injuring 128.
- February 2002: Al-Ayyat train disaster. A train packed to double capacity catches fire, 373 killed in Egypt’s worst ever train incident.
- November 1999: Train between Cairo and Alexandria hits truck and derails, killing 10 and injuring seven.
- April 1999: At least 10 people died and nearly 50 are injured in northern Egypt after head-on collision between trains.
- October 1998: About 50 people killed and more than 80 injured in a derailment just south of Alexandria. The train failed to stop at buffers and ran into a busy market square. Reports suggested that passengers travelling on the roof of the train might have tampered with an air pipe, disabling the brakes.
- February 1997: At least 11 people died after a collision caused by human error and a signalling failure north of Aswan.
- February 1996: Train hits truck on a crossing killing 11 people 90 kilometres north of Cairo.
- December 1995: In thick fog, a train rams into the back of another, 75 people die. Driver was blamed after finding that the train was travelling well above the speed limit.
- May 1995: Nine die after train hits a barrier just north of Cairo and derails.
- April 1995: A train and a bus collide on a level crossing in Nile Delta, killing 49.
- December 1993: At least 12 people died and 60 are injured when two trains collide head-on about 90 kilometres north of Cairo.
- February 1992: Train collision just outside Cairo kills 43 people.

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