BALASORE, India (Reuters) -Indian authorities made fervent appeals to families on Tuesday to help identify 83 unclaimed bodies kept in hospitals and mortuaries after the death toll in the country's deadliest rail crash in over two decades rose to 288.
The disaster struck on Friday, when a passenger train hit a stationary freight train, jumped the tracks and hit another passenger train passing in the opposite direction near the district of Balasore in the eastern state of Odisha.
Bijay Kumar Mohapatra, health director of Odisha, told Reuters that authorities were trying to source iced containers to help preserve the unclaimed bodies.
"Unless they are identified, a post mortem cannot be done," Mohapatra said, explaining that under Odisha state regulations no autopsy can be conducted on an unclaimed body until 96 hours have passed.
The state government revised the death toll upwards to 288, from 275 earlier, and said that 205 dead bodies have been identified and handed over. The remaining 83 will be preserved, Odisha Chief Secretary Pradeep Jena said.
At state capital Bhubaneswar's biggest hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), large television screens displayed pictures of the dead to help desperate families who are scouring hospitals and mortuaries for friends and relatives.
A detailed list was made of distinguishing features for each body, but relatives could first view photographs, however gruesome, to identify missing loved ones, a senior police official told Reuters.
The trains had passengers from several states and officials from seven states were in Balasore to help people claim the bodies and take the dead home, the police official added.
However, all the help proved inadequate for some families.
Niranjan Patra was shocked when authorities informed him that the body of his aunt, Manju Mani Patra, who had travelled on the Coromandel Express, seemed to have been handed over to someone else.
Patra said his family identified her through the photographs of the deceased released by the government, but they were unable to find her body in any of the hospitals in Bhubaneswar.
"We don't want the compensation, we want to perform her last rites. No one is able to tell us where her body is," Patra said, standing at the help desk at Balasore railway station.
A forlorn Parbati Hembrum, from West Bengal's Hooghly district, also stood near the help desk, looking for information on her son Gopal.
The 20-year-old had travelled in the Coromandel Express with three others from their village, but while the other three returned home, Gopal has not.
Tarapada Tudu, standing next to his relative Hembrum, said Gopal was admitted to Balasore hospital after the accident but when they looked for him there, the hospital said he was released the same day after being treated for minor injuries.
But, filled with dread over the lack of contact with Gopal, Tudu said he and Hembrum will travel to Bhubaneswar to look for him among the dead.
There were also incidents of double claims for dead bodies.
"In those cases we are going for DNA sampling and matching. We have already preserved DNA of the dead bodies," senior police official Prateek Singh told reporters.
A team from the federal Central Bureau of Investigation reached the site on Tuesday to start a probe into the cause of the disaster. A separate inquiry by the railway's safety commission started on Monday.
A signal failure was the likely cause of the disaster, according to preliminary findings, which indicated the Coromandel Express, heading southbound to Chennai from Kolkata, moved off the main line and entered a loop track – a side track used to park trains – at 128 kph (80 mph), crashing into the stationary freight train.
That crash caused the engine and first four or five coaches of the Coromandel Express to jump the tracks, topple and hit the last two coaches of the Yeshwantpur-Howrah train heading in the opposite direction at 126 kph on the second main track.
(Reporting by Jatindra Dash and Krishn Kaushik, additional reporting by Francis Mascarenhas; Writing by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sharon Singleton)