Sixteen people, including seven schoolchildren, were killed and 16 injured when the Sutlej Express rammed into a minibus at a manned railway crossing in Choorhchak village, 7-km from here, on Friday. Three of the injured are said to be in a critical condition. No train passenger was injured.
The accident occurred at around 8.25 am. The crossing had been closed for the passage of the train but was opened by railway gateman Kulwinder Singh on a request from the bus driver, Iqbal Singh, who was in a hurry to get the students to the school. Neither of them saw the train coming as the fog had reduced visibility to almost zero. And the train whistle was lost in the noise of the bus engine. As the bus sneaked through the gate, the train rammed it from behind.
Among the eyewitnesses was Kiranbala, Kulwinder's 11-year-old daughter, who was among the last to board the bus and had a miraculous escape as she was thrown off by the impact. She said her father had opened the gate as she and her fellow students were getting late. Another eyewitness, Monu, the son of another gateman, said the same.
While the passengers and eyewitnesses blamed Kulwinder, Northern Railway general manager Sri Sri Prakash said: "It was a manned level crossing and its gate was closed. The driver was at fault as he could not see the gate due of low visibility and crashed the vehicle into the train." He said the Railways has launched an investigation.
The police said Iqbal, who jumped out of the bus, sustained serious injures and is in hospital. A case has been registered against him and Kulwinder, who is absconding.
The Railways announced Rs 5 lakh in compensation to the families of the dead, Rs 50,000 each for the seriously injured and Rs 15,000 each for those with minor injuries. It will also consider giving jobs to relatives of the dead who belong to the poorest of poor section. In addition, the Punjab government announced ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh to the families of the deceased and Rs 25,000 each for the injured as well as free medical treatment.