In one of the worst road accidents in the state, 37 people, many of them Mumbaiites, were killed and 15 others, including the driver, were injured when a Mumbai-bound private bus coming from Goa ran off a bridge and plunged 40 feet below into the Jagbudi river at Khed, Ratnagiri, early on Tuesday.
Preliminary investigations suggest the accident took place after the driver, Santaji Kailash Kirdat, 36, fell asleep at the wheel, said Nandkumar Thakur, additional superintendent of police, Ratnagiri.
The mishap took place at 3.30am on the Mumbai-Goa highway (NH17), which is more prone to accidents than other state highways, according to traffic authorities.
Last year, 193 people were killed and 1,290 others injured in the 1,117 accidents reported on NH17.
“The driver claims he lost control when a tempo suddenly came in front of the bus on the bridge. The bridge is narrow and only one vehicle can pass at a time,” Thakur said.
The police have registered a case against driver Kirdat and collected his blood samples to ascertain if he had been drinking and driving.
Kirdat has a valid driving licence, which was issued in 1995, and the bus, which belongs to Mahakali Travels, has a valid all-India tourist permit, officials said.
“I felt a jolt and woke up. The next moment I found myself stuck between the seats.
The bus was upside down in the river and it was pitch dark. A few of us started to shout for help and somebody called the police control room. I struggled for 20 minutes before I managed to free myself,” said Vashisht Soni, 23, who has been admitted in a city hospital with several injuries.
“Three cranes were used to rescue those trapped inside the bus. Seven of the injured are out of danger, and the remaining eight have been shifted to hospitals in Mumbai, Kolhapur and other places,” said Rajiv Jadhav, collector of Ratnagiri.
The highway was shut for traffic until 7.30am as rescue operations were underway.
By Tuesday night, 31 of the 37 bodies had been identified and handed over to families.
The accident occurred a day after the state government gave out grim statistics of deaths and injuries on the Mumbai-Goa highway.
The state has announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakh each to the kin of the deceased and Rs.50,000 to those who got injured in the accident.