In a rare accident of its kind, at least 32 people were killed and many more injured when a portion of a 145-year-old bridge came crashing down on a passenger coach of the passing 3071 Up Howrah-Jamalpur Express, barely 200 metres before the Bhagalpur railway station early on Saturday.
Bhagalpur Sub-Divisional Officer Dhananjay Thakur confirmed 32 deaths but the Railways helpline could identify just 10 bodies. Many of the victims, including children, were trapped inside the mangled coach till late in the evening. It was widely feared that the toll would rise as many of the injured were stated to be in serious condition.
The deaths were caused by the debris of a brick-and-mortar structure known as 'Ulta Pul', built in 1861. De-commissioned several months ago after a new structure became operational, the archaic bridge was under demolition for the past several days. Inexplicably, trains were allowed to pass underneath even though a part of it was dangling precariously.
Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, in Manihari (Katihar) for an assembly bypoll campaign, has ordered an inquiry. He also announced the suspension of the deputy chief engineer (construction) and an assistant engineer, who was supervising the dismantling. He said criminal cases would be instituted against the guilty officials in an enquiry to be conducted by the Railway Safety Commissioner.
Eyewitnesses said the early rescue work was carried out by local residents as the railway authorities took two hours to reach the spot. A three-bogey special train carrying doctors, relief workers and more officials reached Bhagalpur around 6 pm, nearly 12 hours after the accident. Lalu Prasad Yadav too reached the spot only after campaigning.
The Railway Minister announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh and jobs for next of kin of each of the deceased, besides free medical treatment for the injured passengers. District Magistrate Vipin Kumar said two cranes had been deployed for clearing the debri and confirmed a relief train had reached the spot from Jamalpur.
If anything, it was a ghastly tale of neglect and misfortune. Sources said the labourers engaged in demolition had alerted the authorities about the threat posed by the structure. The train, making a trip between Howrah and Bhagalpur en route to Jamalpur, was already running two hours late.
Several passengers were employees of the Railways' locomotive works at Jamalpur. The victims were travelling in Coach no 8 of the train, which caved in and toppled to one side after taking the full impact of the collapsing third arch of the bridge. Its dismantling was purported to extend the platforms of the Bhagalpur station to enable them to cover the length of 24-coach trains.
Eastern Railways Chief PRO S Majumdar confirmed it was the third arch of the bridge, which had fallen on the train. But he also sought to dilute the Railways' culpability.
"The demolition was being done at night. No work was being undertaken during daytime when trains were being allowed to pass under the bridge," he asserted.
The Bhagalpur District magistrate did not rule out the possibility of the death toll mounting, considering many passengers were standing close to the portion of the coach that took maximum impact. Several passengers came wriggled out either on their own or with local help. Others had to wait for long hours before being rescued.
Amid all the pain and grief, the politicians had their own points to make. While Lalu was "shocked", Chief Minister Nitish Kumar put the blame almost entirely on the Railway Minister. Bhagalpur MP Syed Shahnawaz Hussain (BJP) also held the Railway authorities responsible for the incident.
Email Vijay Swaroop: firstname.lastname@example.org