Urals Train Disaster

A powerful gas pipeline explosion demolished part of the trans-Siberian railway late Saturday night, engulfing two passenger trains in flames and leaving hundreds dead, according to the Tass press agency and local officials reached by telephone.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and several other top Soviet officials flew this morning to the site in the Ural Mountains, where rescue workers were struggling with what Tass described as ''a major catastrophe.''

A civil defense official in the nearby city of Ufa tonight estimated that 500 of the 1,200 passengers had been killed in the explosion. A Soviet reporter in another nearby city, Chelyabinsk, put the death toll at 650.

MOSCOW A total of 645 people, including 181 children, died after a huge fireball engulfed a Soviet train in the Urals last month, the head of a new state commission for catastrophes told the Supreme Soviet on Tuesday.

The figure represents a substantial increase from the 607 deaths reported by the Soviet news agency Tass on June 14.

The Ufa train disaster happened on June 4, 1989 at 1:15 (local time) near the town of Asha in the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway. (Ufa is a much larger and commonly known city, which is situated not far from Asha). A liquefied petroleum gas explosion killed 575 and wounded 623 (some sources claim that up to 645 were killed and more than 700 wounded), making it the most deadly railway accident in Soviet history, as two trains passing each other threw sparks near a leaky pipeline. Both trains were carrying children; one returning from a holiday break on the Black Sea, one taking children there. The explosion was so powerful it blew out windows in Asha, eight miles (13 km) from the epicenter. The explosion is said to have been equal to 10 kilotons of TNT, almost as powerful as the Hiroshima explosion. Three hours before the explosion, engineers noticed a drop in the pressure, but they turned up the pressure back to normal instead of checking for leaks.

Ethnic disorders were not the only sad news that Gorbachev conveyed to the Congress last week. On Monday, dressed in a funereal black suit, the Soviet leader called for a moment of silence in memory of "several hundred" Soviets who perished over the weekend in a gas-pipeline explosion in the southern Ural mountains. Some three hours before the explosion, technicians apparently noticed a dip in pressure along one section of the pipeline. But instead of searching for a leak, they turned up the gas flow to get the pressure back to normal, allowing huge quantities of propane, butane and other highly flammable gasses to escape and form an atmospheric "lake." Fatefully, two passenger trains on the famed TransSiberian Railway were passing each other when the gases, ignited probably by a spark or a discarded cigarette, detonated with the force of a ten-kiloton bomb (the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima was 12.5 kilotons).