Panchla (Howrah), Jan. 28: It was like a train emerging from a dark tunnel at the dead of night with its headlights on. Except that it was swaying from side to side, almost tottering on its wheels as though in an inebriated state.
Except, also, that it wasn’t a train at all. It was a blazing bus, lurching along the road and trying desperately to emerge from the gloom of the dense fog, looking for a pond to dive into.
All this, Partha Haldar realised in a matter of seconds as he sat on night duty in a nearby petrol pump.
He had heard a sound and then seen a flicker, which kept growing with every passing second. But he hadn’t been able to connect until he saw the bus, till he heard the screams of passengers who had woken up to a nightmare.
Unluckily for the bus, it had missed the pond by the roadside. The fog had made visibility minimal. Haldar learnt quite sometime later, from the mumbles of the bus driver carried to him by fire brigade workers, that crazed by the fire, he had mistaken a ditch by the side of the road for the pond he had been looking for.
“It seems the fire had the effect of creating a mirage in the mind of the driver,” Haldar said. “There were, in fact, two ponds between the stretch where the accident took place and where the bus finally came to a halt. It is strange that he should have thought of the ditch as the stretch of water that would save the passengers.”
Manik Pal, too, thought he had seen a mirage, except that it was for real.
He thought he saw a shimmering halo around a woman seated in the bus with a child on her lap. In moments, the halo engulfed the woman and then the helpless child. It was then that reality hit him: the fire had consumed the mother and the child, trapped in the bus, even as he stood by, not daring to believe his eyes.
When he finally picked up enough courage to venture near the bus, much after the fire had been doused, he saw the mother and her child in much the same position as they had been when the “halo” had been around them.
It was a bare, skeletal figure of the two, conjoined in death and charred beyond recognition.
A similar vision had visited school student Nirmal Dolui a few yards from the accident site. This, too, was unreal, as Dolui would recount later. It was the sight of a half-man, body sticking out, hands flailing but everything about him ended at the torso. There was nothing beyond.
Then why wasn’t that “half body” slipping out of the window, Dolui wondered. He would later find out that the flesh of his two legs, which were in flames, had meshed with the melting steel of the seats and had held him back from leaping to safety.
“This is one sight that will never leave me,” Dolui said.