Thirty year old Mingma Lama cannot come to terms with reality. The past few hours has snatched her elder brother- the only earning member of her family and her niece, a brilliant student. Sobbing uncontrollably she stated “Only we know what we are going through. I had repeatedly asked my brother not to go but he did not pay any heed. It is owing to utter carelessness that so many people lost their lives.”
A crowd trying to cross over a suspension bridge in Bijanbari, 38 km away from Darjeeling town, resulting in its metal cable anchor being uprooted owing to the load and the entire bridge collapsing. The official death toll stands at 32 mainly women and children along with 130 injured.
The crowd had gathered to hear Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) Chief Bimal Gurung’s address along with an entertainment programme.
“Why did they organise such a programme in the wilderness? They could have easily done it inside Bijanbari town. Everyone knew that crowds would swell and the frail bridge would not support such crowd. When the bridge was in such condition why hadn’t the administration done proper maintenance or declared the bridge unsafe? Why had they allowed so many people to cross over all at once” questioned Lama.
Mingma lost her elder brother Santosh (37) and his daughter Doma (14) in the tragedy. “ My niece a Class 8 student used to top her class and was even awarded a scholarship. We had lots of hope on her” sobbed Mingma.
She stated than an electricity cable had also plunged into the water and many of the victims suffered electrical shocks. Rajen Pradhan, a local resident stated that there were policemen and GJM volunteers manning both sides of the bridge since morning, controlling the crowd and allowing a few people to cross over at a time.
People from nearby settlements of Chongtong, Kaijaley, Suntaley, Gok, Samalbeyong and Rimbick had arrived to hear Uday Sotang and Manila Sotang, popular Nepali duet singers. “As soon as the songs were over, the crowds swelled, impatient to return back home.. The crowd became uncontrollable. They were trying to cross over all at once. The cable anchors came off tilting the bridge and finally the bridge snapped with more than 150 people plunging 65 feet below” stated Rajen Pradhan, local resident and an eye witness.
The 270 feet long bridge had been built in 1971 with the previous bridge having been washed away in the flash floods of 1968. Usually around 10 people would cross over together.
“The last I had spoken to my mother was three days ago. After I received news of the accident I rushed back to Bijanbari. When I arrived here my mother was no more” stated Pankaj Subba, a computer science student studying in Darjeeling. His mother Sumitra Subba is a victim of this disaster.
“It is purely an accident, hence could not be forecasted. It occurred due to the load. However a lot of credit goes to the people who helped in relief and rescue operations. Even the staff of the Block Medical Hospital went out of the way to conduct post mortems on the 11 deceased at the Block hospital rather than sending the dead bodies to Darjeeling Sadar hospital which have caused more problems for the already traumatized family members of the deceased. The bodies were handed over to the family members by 1 am” stated Tamal Das, Sub Divisional Officer, Darjeeling.
The Block Hospital at Bijanbari had 6 injured patients on Sunday. However when Sunil Tirkey, the consumer affairs minister visited the Hospital he was swamped by complaints. “We do not have a generator and an X-Ray machine in this Block Hospital There was an hour long power cut last night further aggravating the situation. Just because of the lack of an X-Ray machine we had to refer many patients to Darjeeling” stated Dr. S. Khaling, Medical Officer of the Block Hospital.
In Darjeeling 81 injured patients were undergoing treatment on Sunday out of the 102 admitted on Saturday. The rest had been referred to North Bengal Medical College and Hospital, near Siliguri in the plains.
Even the army was pressed into service conducting rescue and medical relief operations. “We have already shifted 8 patients from the Darjeeling Sadar Hospital to the Base Hospital at Bagdogra in the plains. We are in the process of shifting other seriously injured referral cases” stated an army personnel of the Army Medical Corps.
“Owing to pain in his head and back he has been referred to the Darjeeling Sadar Hospital from Bijanbari Block Hospital. The Doctors here stated that he is fine, despite his pain. It seems that as the Darjeeling Sadar Hospital does not have a CT Scan machine, they are sending him home” alleged Meena Chettri whose nephew Abhisekh Bhujel (15) is injured.
Though there was around 23 units of blood available at the District blood bank, the blood bank was maintaining a list of donors who had pledged blood in case of emergency.
Many complained of being sent to private nursing homes for X-rays. “The X-ray machines are under heavy pressure, people have to do their share” countered Dr. SC Bhowmick, chief medical officer of health, Darjeeling.