Thirty-four people, including eight women, died when a Himachal Pradesh Transport Corporation (HRTC) bus rolled down a 1,000-foot-deep gorge on late Monday evening at Malli village near Ashapuri, around 40 kilometre from Kangra. Five others, including two women and a child, were seriously injured in the mishap.
The ill- fated bus was on its way from Palampur to Ashapuri, a remote village known for its hilltop shrine.
Kangra deputy commissioner KR Bharti who returned from the spot on Tuesday morning told that all the 34 dead bodies had been recovered from the mangled remains of the bus.
"Five injured, including conductor Sumir Kumar, have been admitted to a hospital. Two of them were referred to Dr Rajendra Prasad Medical College, Tanda," said Bharti.
Earlier, on Monday night, the administration had feared 40 deaths as nobody had the exact idea of the number of passengers on board and the survivors.
Vandna Devi, one of the survivors who was rescued two hours after the accident, told that most of passengers alighted from the bus at Makol village, a few minutes before the tragedy.
Meanwhile, Bharti said police, home guards and medical teams were rushed to the spot soon after the news about the accident was received.
A team of the army from Palampur equipped with search lights also joined the rescue operation.
Bharti said the inhospitable weather conditions, rugged terrain, slippery slopes and thick forest coupled with darkness hampered the relief and rescue operations on Monday night.
"The rescue teams faced difficulties in locating the wreckage of the bus. We first tried to rescue those who were injured in the mishap. The night-long search operation ended at 9am today," said Bharti, adding that rescue workers had used ropes to go down the gorge to recover the bodies and injured.
Informing about the preliminary cause of accident, Bharti said some technical snag was the main reason as the survivors told that the driver had problem with his seat.
"According to the survivors, the driver's seat was sliding back and he had once stop the bus to adjust his seat minutes before the accident," said Bharti, adding that the driver was even reluctant to take it further, however, as it was the last bus to the area, people insisted him to go on.
Reshma, another survivor, told the police that the bus suddenly started moving back on the steep road and rolled down the gorge.
"Most probably, the driver was distracted while adjusting the seat or his seat slided back and he lost control," Bharti said, adding that some people told that he was changing the gear at the time when the bus started moving backward.
Meanwhile, the district administration disbursed immediate relief of Rs. 20, 000 to the next of kin of the deceased and Rs. 5,000 each to the injured.
Governor Urmila Singh and chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal have expressed grief over the accident. The government has ordered a magisterial probe into the accident which will be conducted by the Palampur SDM.