4 days on, officials struggle to preserve bodies of Odisha train tragedy victims
Of the 288 bodies recovered from accident site, 205 have been identified and sent back to their families
At the Balasore district hospital, next to a helpdesk strewn with macabre photographs of the dead, Krupa Devi sits slumped against a wall. On Friday evening, from her home in Bihar’s Munger, she watched the news in horror, as television channels streamed visuals from the site of India’s worst rail accident in three decades featuring the Coromandel Express, a train her father Manoj Chaudhuri had boarded that morning from Howrah.
By Saturday, the 23-year-old was in Balasore, hunting for him. For the first two days, she had hoped he would be among the injured, but it was not to be. Since then, she has poured through photograph after photograph, body after body, travelled from the Balasore district hospital to the SCB Medical College in Cuttack to the AIIMS in Bhubaneswar. And in what is symptomatic of a growing challenge for the Odisha government and the railways; to combat which they have called in specialised containers, embalming experts and are beginning DNA sampling; Krupa Devi has yet to find her father.
On Friday evening, the Coromandel Express that travels from Shalimar in West Bengal to Chennai in Tamil Nadu on one of India’s trunk railway routes, crashed into a goods train, some of its derailed compartments then colliding into the Yeshwantpur Howrah Express at the Bahanaga Bazar railway station, leaving 288 dead and over 1100 injured. Of the 288, 205 have been identified and sent back to their families. For the other 83, like Devi, the wait exacerbates the pain of loss. “So many of the bodies are disfigured. The eyes are protruding, the faces are bloated, they all look the same. Someone get me my father,” a disconsolate Devi said.
On Sunday, aware that they were racing against time and decomposition, close to 100 bodies were sent to AIIMS Bhubaneswar for embalming, a process where formalin is injected into the arteries, normally intended to delay decomposition so the remains are suitable for a funeral, or to preserve the body in case the last rites have to be conducted a few days after death. Before the surgical embalming can begin, the body is washed in a disinfectant solution and the limbs are massaged and manipulated to relieve rigor mortis (stiffening of the joints and muscles).
On Monday, a team of doctors from Delhi from AIIMS, Lady Hardinge Medical College and Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital arrived in Odisha to provide their expertise. Additionally, AIIMS has called for at least five container size freezers from the Paradip Port, that have the capacity to hold 200 bodies. But doctors remain sceptical of this strategy so far.
“Ideally, embalming should be done within 6-12 hours of death. If embalming is not done for more than 12 hours after death, its loses effectiveness and decomposition happens quickly. The accident happened during the summer so that has exacerbated the process. Also if the body is damaged, embalming is difficult. If the body is damaged, it is very difficult to embalm it,” said Dr Prabhas Ranjan Tripathy, professor of anatomy at AIIMS Bhubaneswar.
With decomposition inevitable, the AIIMS authorities on Monday also started DNA testing, collecting blood samples from family members to match with DNA samples retrieved from the bodies, to avoid discrepancies. This is now key, officials said, because there have been instances where bodies identified by one family from a photograph, have been found to have been taken away by someone else.
A claimant from Jharkhand on Tuesday told PTI that they had identified the body of Upendra Kumar Sharma one day before, but it was handed over to someone else. “What is the point of doing DNA sampling? We identified Upendra from the tattoo mark on his body,” the relative said.
As many as 10 samples have so far been collected from the claimants, a senior official of AIIMS, Bhubaneswar said.
State government officials said that the arrival of these special containers from Paradip means they have bought some time, and they will wait for a couple of days to take a final call if bodies have no claimants at all. “As per IPC, we can cremate the bodies after 96 hours if there are no claimants. A mass cremation is a last resort,” a senior official said.