Chennai, July 30: Survivors from coach S11 of the Tamil Nadu Express need to thank only one person and his inability to get sound sleep: Ram Sudhakar, 32, a passenger who first spotted the fire, raised the alarm and pulled the chain to halt the train.
"I am a poor sleeper during train journeys and I heard a loud sound. Around 4.15am, I saw flames from the electrical panel near the toilet. I immediately shouted 'fire' and pulled the alarm chain before running towards the door on the other end of the bogie.
"Since I was sleeping on the side lower berth, I could run but those in the upper berths had no such luck," recalled Sudhakar, a branch manager with United India Insurance who had boarded the train at Vijayawada, where he had reached from Visakhapatnam on an official trip.
Sudhakar told reporters at Chennai Central station that he was fortunate to have occupied berth 7 whereas the fire had started near berth 72.
"That gave me enough time to wake up others and open one of the doors closest to me. Since the other door was stuck, all of us had to jump out through one door. Luckily, the train had started to slow down," he recalled.
As the train came to a halt, Sudhakar heard someone calling out from the burning coach. He climbed back, spotted an elderly couple and pushed them out.
"They asked me to rescue their daughter as well but by then, the smoke was so thick I could hardly breathe and had to jump out to save myself. I later learnt that the poor lady, who was going to Chennai for treatment, had died," said a distraught Sudhakar.
According to a senior railway officer, Sudhakar's response brought the train to a halt and prevented the fire from engulfing other bogies as movement would have fanned the flames.
"Even from outside the coach the heat was unbearable and I shudder to imagine what the victims inside the coach would have felt," Sudhakar said in Chennai.
Some TV channels in Andhra had listed him among the dead, which had led to a spate of enquiries from friends and relatives on his mobile phone.
Eighteen survivors arrived at Chennai Central. They were hugged by tearful relatives who till a few hours ago were on tenterhooks.
"Luckily, my brother Rohit Shah called me from his mobile after jumping out of the train with his wife and daughter. They were at the other end of coach and were able to get out fast," said Rahul Shah, who runs a wholesale business in Chennai with his elder brother Rohit.
Among the survivors is K. Chitra, a CISF sub-inspector who works at the Chennai airport and was returning from Delhi after a training course. "The flames spread very rapidly and I was lucky to get out. There was no time to think about the others as the flames were spreading fast," she said.