MUMBAI – In the wake of one of the deadliest train crashes in India’s history, in which at least 288 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured when three trains collided, the Catholic diocese in the area of the disaster has plunged into rescue and relief operations.

“The response from the church side was immediate, as priests and parishioners in and around Balasore got actively involved with the rescue operations,” said Father Roy Kochupurackal, Director of Social services for the Diocese of Balasore, located in the eastern Indian state of Odisha where the crash occurred.

The tragedy happened around 7:00 p.m. local time on Friday, June 2, when the Coromandel Express and the Bengaluru- Howrah Superfast Express collided at Balasore. A goods train was also involved in the accident.

According to media reports, an error in a passenger train’s electronic signaling system caused it to switch tracks and ram another train, which derailed. Together, the two trains were carrying 2,296 people when they collided.

“Around 7:00 p.m. the accident took place, and around 8.30 p.m. the victims began to be brought to Balasore HQ,” Kochupurackal told Crux.

In a cruel irony to the tragedy, observers say many of the most badly affected victims of the accident come from the lower strata of Indian society, since the greatest damage was to the general compartments of the trains.

Church personnel from the Balasore Social Service Society began directing the victims for surgeries, providing trauma care and also connecting the wounded with their families as many were from outside the state. Food and water were also provided to survivors.

“Our staff admitted survivors in the emergency ward and immediately responded with medical treatment through the night and helped in shifting some wounded to other nearby hospitals,” said Father Peter Mons Arakkal, director of the Jyoti Hospital managed by the Balasore diocese.

“In the morning, I took my nursing staff to the site to help with medical treatments. Besides hundreds of local people, mostly young people, have queued up to donate blood for the accident victims,” Arakkal told Crux.

Although Catholics represent only 1.6 percent of India’s population, the church has long been known in the country for the extensive network of hospitals, schools and other social service facilities it operates.

India’s leading Catholic prelate expressed “deep sadness” over the crash.

“I am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of lives in thIs grave train accident in Balasore, so many lives have been lost, the death toll is so high, its sorrowful, so much suffering,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai told Crux.

“I express my condolences to those who lost loved ones or suffered in this train disaster and offer my heartfelt condolences to the families who mourn their loved ones,” Gracias said.

Pope Francis has also grieved the loss of lives in the Balasore train accident during his noontime Angelus address on Sunday, June 4.

“I am close to the injured and their families. May our heavenly Father welcome the souls of the deceased into his kingdom,” the pontiff said.

The pope also sent a message to his envoy in India, which was signed by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

“His Holiness Pope Francis was deeply saddened to learn of the immense loss of life caused by the train crash in Odisha State, and he assures all affected by this tragedy of his spiritual closeness,” the note said.

“Entrusting the souls of the deceased to the loving mercy of the Almighty, he sends heartfelt condolences to those who mourn their loss. His Holiness likewise offers prayers for the many injured and for the efforts of the emergency service personnel, and he invokes upon them the divine gifts of courage and consolation.”