Rescue workers recovered more than 300 bodies Sunday from the wreckage of a subway that caught fire in the capital, trapping hundreds of terrified passengers in a scene of panic, darkness and deadly gas. At least 200 others were injured.
Azerbaijan declared two days of mourning for the dead. Officials blamed the tragedy, the world’s worst subway accident, on the system’s “outdated Soviet” equipment.
Unable to escape from the packed cars, most of the people who died were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from burning toxic materials in the train carriages, officials said.
“As soon as the train entered the tunnel, I saw a flash,” said Tabil Guseinov, 45, a passenger. “Then the flames enveloped the train car, there was a sound of breaking glass and the lights went out. People started breaking windows to get out. We were starting to suffocate.”
The fire broke out between two stations in central Baku on Saturday afternoon because of a malfunction in the train’s electrical system.
Rescuers battled the blaze until early Sunday, then pulled the injured and the dead from the tunnel.
Morgue officials said they had counted at least 303 bodies, and the independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan quoted medical officials as putting the death toll at 337.
Throughout the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union, poorly maintained infrastructure, from airplanes to pipelines, is falling into ruin and exposing people and the environment to danger.
The breakup of the centrally planned Soviet Union four years ago has left remote regions with big-city expenses that overwhelm populations impoverished by the chaotic economic transition to market economies.
Even in oil-rich areas such as Azerbaijan, investment in transportation and services has been minimal as corrupt officials and a flourishing Mafia bilk profitable industries.