Ufa train disaster
|Ufa train disaster|
|Date||4 June 1989 |
|Location||Iglinsky District, Bashkir ASSR|
The Ufa train disaster was a railway accident that occurred on 4 June 1989, in Iglinsky District, Bashkir ASSR, Soviet Union, when an explosion killed 575 people and injured 800 more. It is the deadliest rail disaster during peacetime in Soviet/Russian history.
The accident was named after Ufa, the largest city in the Bashkir ASSR, although it occurred about 75 kilometres (47 miles) east of the city. An annual commemoration is usually held at the Ulu-Telyak station, near the disaster site; there is a memorial at the site.
The pipeline had originally been designed for the transportation of oil but had been reformatted to transport natural gas liquids for the Soviet petrochemical industry. In May 1984 the Soviet Ministry of Petroleum had canceled the installation of an automatic real time leak detection system. In 1985 an excavator caused severe mechanical damage to the pipe in the form of a 1.7 m crack during bypass construction. Additionally on the night of the explosion there was increased pressure in the system due to increased demand.
At 1:15 am, two passenger trains of the Kuybyshev Railway carrying approximately 1,300 vacationers to and from Novosibirsk and a resort in Adler on the Black Sea exploded, 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) from the town of Asha, Chelyabinsk Oblast. Without anyone knowing, a faulty gas pipeline 900 metres (3,000 feet) from the line had leaked natural gas liquids (mainly propane and butane), and weather conditions allowed the gas to accumulate across the lowlands, creating a flammable cloud along part of the Kuybyshev Railway.
The explosion occurred after wheel sparks from the two passenger trains heading in opposite directions ignited this flammable cloud. Estimates of the size of the explosion have ranged from 250–300 tons TNT equivalent to up to 10 kilotons TNT equivalent.
Military units and medical teams were dispatched to the scene of the accident, many of whom searched the surrounding woods and mountains in case victims managed to escape from the scene of the accident. Scenes of the accident were streamed on Soviet television channels, with images of both the accident and victims being shown. Victims were initially evacuated to nearby towns for basic first aid, before they were evacuated by medical vehicles and helicopters to Ufa and Chelyabinsk or flown via Aeroflot to Moscow for the most severely injured. The total evacuation took 16 hours and 45 minutes with 806 people admitted to hospitals and burn centers.
Many of the victims died later in hospital; official figures are 575 dead and over 800 injured, but an unofficial estimate of the number of deaths is approximately 780. 181 of the dead were children.
Many survivors received severe thermal burns and brain injuries. Of the reported 469 survivors, 109 were children with a majority of them hospitalized. A seventeen member burn team flew from San Antonio, Texas to Ufa to help assist in the care and management of about 150 burn patients. The group returned to Moscow for evaluation and treatment of about 25 children seven months after the disaster, with hepatitis, cardiomyopathy and severe emotional disorders all seen in the children. A 16 person team from the UK went to Chelyabinsk to assist there.
On the afternoon of 4 June, Mikhail Gorbachev, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, and members of the government commission to investigate the accident visited the site. Rumors of sabotage were widespread in the local population, but a majority of officials believed the disaster was accidental. The Chairman of the Commission for Investigation of the accident was Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Gennady Vedernikov. The trial over the accident continued for six years, nine officials being charged, mostly members of Nefteprovodmontazh (the trust that constructed the faulty pipeline) including the chief of the construction and installation department of Nefteprovodmontazh and foremen. The charges were brought under Article 215, part II of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR, where the maximum penalty was five years imprisonment.
According to Dmitry Chernov and Didier Sornette, the following factors contributed to the disaster:
- Hurried work culture,
- Cancelling the addition of telemetry,
- Taking authority to stop trains away from dispatchers,
- Changing the type and the amount of the product sent through the pipe,
- Changing the allowed pipe pressure (instead of inspecting the reasons for the fall of gas pressure),
- Cutting corners,
- No proper processes in place for safe working.
Another factor, aside from the gas leak's factor set, was reported to be the failure to respond to multiple reports of the presence of gas in the air prior to the explosion.
Gennady Verzyan, a local resident in Asha (11 km from the explosion):
"Between one and two in the morning I saw a bright light shooting upwards on the other side of the border with Bashkiria. A pillar of fire rose up hundreds of metres into the sky, and after that the shock wave hit. The wave was so powerful that it blew the glass out of the windows of some of the houses."
Alexei Godok, who in 1989 was the first deputy head of passenger services on the South Urals Railway:
"When we flew over the scene of the accident it looked as though it had been hit with some kind of napalm. All that was left of the trees were blackened stakes, as if they had been stripped bare from root to tip. The carriages had been thrown all over the place... By unhappy accident the train from Novosibirsk was running 7 minutes late. If it had been on time, if they had met at a different spot, nothing would have happened. The tragedy is that when they met, the brakes of one of the trains produced a spark, and when that met the gas that had built up in the low-lying area the explosion occurred instantaneously. It’s just fate. And neglectfulness too on our part, of course... I spent some time at the scene with the KGB and the military looking into what had caused the disaster. By the end of the day, 5 June, we already knew that this was a terrible accident rather than sabotage or anything like that... People living in villages nearby had actually smelled gas previously, our train drivers had too... An inspection showed that the gas had been building up there for between 20 and 25 days. With trains passing by the whole time! As for the gas pipeline, it emerged that it was not being monitored at all, even though the relevant authorities were required to inspect the condition of their pipelines regularly. After this disaster a new instruction was introduced for all our drivers - if they smell gas they are required to report it immediately and all trains are to be stopped until an inspection can be carried out. This was a lesson we learned at a terrible cost..."
Salavat Abdulin, whose daughter Lena Abdulina died in the accident and who became co-chairman of the Association of Relatives of the Victims of the Accident near Asha:
"We were told at the rail station that our children had been in the rear carriages and that these had not been affected. Someone was saying they had received a call from their teacher Mr Tulupov, who had been travelling with them, and he had said that everything was OK. But they were just telling us that to keep us calm. At six in the evening we got on a special train to Asha, then from Asha to Ufa. My daughter’s name wasn’t on the list of survivors. We spent three days going round the hospitals looking for her. But we found nothing. Then after that my wife and I went round the cold storage facilities... There was one girl there. She was about the same age as my daughter. She was missing her head, all that was left were two bottom teeth poking out. She was as black as a cooking pot. I thought I’d be able to recognise her by her legs, she used to dance, she was a ballerina, but the legs were gone too, it was just a torso. But the torso looked like hers. I blamed myself afterward, because it might have been possible to identify her by her blood type or by her collarbone, which she had broken as a child... But in the state I was in, it just didn’t occur to me. Maybe that was her... There were a lot of ‘fragments’ of bodies that were left unidentified. […] 24 people from our school were never found at all, 21 were confirmed as killed. 9 survived. None of the teachers were ever found."
Valery Mikheev, deputy editor of the ‘Steel Spark’ newspaper, Asha:
"Just after going to bed I was woken up by a horribly bright flash. I saw a glow on the horizon. About thirty seconds later the shock wave reached Asha and smashed a lot of windows.. I realised that something terrible had happened. A few minutes later I was already at the town police station with a number of others who had turned out to do our bit, and we rushed toward the glow. The scene that we found there was something beyond even the sickest imagination. The trees were burning up like giant candles, and the cherry red carriages were smoking all along the embankment. The unreal sound of hundreds of dying and burning people’s cries of pain and terror all merged into one. The forest was burning, the tracks were burning, the people were burning. We rushed after the people who were running around on fire, beat out the flames and led them closer to the road and away from the flames. It was like the apocalypse… And so many of them were children! The medics started to arrive shortly after us. We put the living on one side and the dead on the other. I remember carrying a little girl and she kept asking me where her mother was. I handed her over to a doctor I knew, and I was saying - come on, get her wounds dressed! He said to me: "Valery, she’s gone..." - "What do you mean she’s gone, she was just talking?!" - “She was in shock”."
The next day was declared a national day of mourning with flags lowered and entertainment programs cancelled. A planned resumption of the National Congress of People's Deputies was also cancelled.
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