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An error in India's electronic signaling system was blamed Sunday for sending a passenger train jammed with workers and students into a head-on crash with a freight train, triggering one of the world's deadliest train crashes in decades.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the "harshest punishment" for anyone found responsible in Friday's wreck.
Jaya Verma Sinha, a senior railway official, said Sunday that a preliminary investigation revealed the tragedy in the eastern India state of Odisha began when a signal was initially given to the high-speed express train to run on the main track line. But the signal changed, sending the Coromandel Express into an adjacent loop line where it slammed into a freight train loaded with iron ore, she said.
“The system is 99.9% error free. But 0.1% chances are always there for an error,” Verma said. To a question of whether the crash could be a case of sabotage, she said “nothing is ruled out.” She also said the passenger trains were not speeding.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told reporters the crash was caused by "a change made in the electronic interlocking and point machine'' and he said the "criminals'' who were responsible have been identified, The Times of India reported.
Authorities also revised the death toll to 275, down slightly from more than 300 announced after the wreck.
◾Many family members of the dead struggled Sunday to reach the site of the crash. Identification of victims was slowed by the mutilated condition of many remains.
◾Railway crews worked to fix the broken tracks even as excavators continued to remove debris from the crash site.
◾Even though Modi's administration has been trying to modernize and improve safety in India's railroad network, the largest under one management in the world, several hundred accidents occur every year on the country's railways.
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Train employee 'lucky' to be alive
Pantry worker Inder Mahato said the impact of the crash caused him to briefly lose consciousness. He awoke to see bodies of the dead and the living writhing in pain. Four of his friends died, he said, and he remained stuck in the train’s bathroom until rescuers scaled up the wreckage and pulled him out.
“God saved me,” Mahato said from a hospital bed while recuperating from a hairline fracture in his sternum. “I am very lucky I am alive.”
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Prime minister vows 'harshest punishment' for those responsible
Modi vowed that a thorough investigation would take place and that if people are found responsible, "the guilty should get the harshest punishment. They will not be spared."
Modi said he was "deeply moved" by the condolence messages from leaders around the world. Their kind words, he said, would provide strength to bereaved families. And he said his government would stand with the survivors of the crash and the families of those who died.
"This is a very big, painful and disturbing incident," Modi said after touring the crash site.
Driver said train had gotten green signal
Verma said a detailed investigation will reveal whether the error was human or technical. The electronic interlocking system is designed to keep trains separated. It also monitors the status of signals that tell drivers how close they are to a next train, how fast they can go and the presence of stationary trains on the track.
"We are making sure that the evidence does not get tampered with," Verma said. "The driver of the train, who sustained serious injuries, said that the train moved forward only after it received a 'green' signal."
What happened in the collision?
The collision flipped Coromandel Express’s coaches onto another track, causing the incoming Yesvantpur-Howrah Express from the opposite side to derail. The passenger trains were carrying 2,296 people, and 17 of the coaches derailed.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: India train crash updates: Electronic signal system blamed