NEW DELHI — At least 44 people were burned to death early Wednesday when the luxury bus they were traveling on lost control and ignited in southeastern Andhra Pradesh state, underscoring the dangerous state of Indian roads.
Five passengers out of the 51 people aboard the air-conditioned luxury Volvo bus managed to escape by breaking windows, said Pradeep Reddy, additional police superintendent in the state's Mahabubnagar district. The driver and his assistant fled through the door even as the rest perished in the rapidly spreading blaze. Indian media reported that the emergency exits jammed, preventing escape.
Police said the bus was on an overnight run from Bangalore to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, when it tried to overtake another vehicle around 5 a.m. and hit a drain, igniting the fuel tank.
Most passengers were reportedly sleeping when the accident occurred some 90 miles south of Hyderabad. Authorities reported having trouble identifying the badly charred bodies. Adding to the difficulty, several people boarded along the way, so their names were not on any passenger list.
"The post mortems are going on near the highway, where we've set up a temporary camp," Reddy said. "None of the bodies have been identified so far. Our preliminary investigation suggests this was an accident, not sabotage. The driver wasn't sleeping or anything like that."
TV footage showed extensive smoke and flames engulfing the gutted bus, its left side twisted and partially collapsed from the heat, its tires completely incinerated except for their metal reinforcement strips. Locals could be seen throwing water from white buckets at the smoking remains of the bus, owned by privately held Jabbar Travels based in Hyderabad.
India has some of the world's deadliest roads. Many are poorly built, lack guard rails or warning signs and are used by huge volumes of pedestrians, livestock, horse carts, overloaded trucks and passenger vehicles, with many users walking or driving recklessly as they jockey for space. A death occurs every five minutes on the nation's thoroughfares, according to government statistics, a figure expected to increase to one every three minutes by 2020.
According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, over 130,000 people died in road accidents across the country in 2011, up 44% from 2001. Between 2001 and 2011, some 1 million people perished in road accidents.