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Barge into bridge

Calcutta, June 24: An empty barge coasting along a wrong corridor rammed into the Howrah bridge this afternoon, its mast getting stuck in the underside, damaging the city landmark and putting it out of bounds to traffic for hours.

The mast got caught in the bridge’s trolley track, used for repairing and painting, for a while before getting jammed between two girders. The vessel then bobbed in the river for nearly three-and-a-half hours.

From 3.05 pm, police barred vehicles on the bridge, forcing them to take a detour via Vidyasagar Setu. Traffic along the Howrah bridge’s approaches on both sides was thrown out of gear for several hours. The ferry service plying under the bridge was also restricted.

The police said the barge, MV Moni, was sailing from Budge Budge to Ghusuri in Salkia for repairs. It was empty and had around half-a-dozen crew members.

Riding the high water, the vessel ' owned by MJS Water Transport Company ' was cruising northwards keeping to the left (the Howrah side) instead of the middle of the river where the bridge arches higher. It slipped under the bridge around 1.10 pm.

“Suddenly, the mast hit the trolley track and, under the impact, the master at the wheel lost control,” said Ajay Ranade, deputy commissioner of police (port division).

Master of the vessel M.S. Barua said: “The impact was so great' I fell on the floor.”

Caught by the high water, the vessel veered to the left and its mast scraped with a loud metallic screech against two girders under the bridge, nearer the Howrah side, and got stuck there.

Shaking off their initial shock, the crew climbed on the roof of the master’s cabin and heaved and pushed the mast to try and set it free. The vessel rocked dangerously and a crew member, Amar Rakshit, fell off the cabin roof on to the deck, hurting himself.

The crew engaged another vessel to tug Moni free. Ganga Lahari struggled in vain for nearly an hour when it was spotted by the river traffic police. A crowd had already gathered on the bridge to watch.

The police informed the Calcutta Port Trust, whose engineers took over, cutting the mast free with their gas-cutters around 4.45 pm, allowing traffic to resume.

“To us, saving the bridge was the most important thing. So, we decided to chop off the mast and part of the master’s cabin,” said A.K. Chanda, the port trust chairman.

S.L. Jain, owner of the barge, struck out at the authorities for damaging the vessel. “I asked them to wait till 3.30 for low tide. The ship would have come out easily, instead they chopped off the mast and the master’s room.”

Claiming he had lost Rs 20-25 lakh, Jain refused to furnish an undertaking worth Rs 1 crore that the port was apparently seeking.

After a preliminary inspection, the port put the damage to the bridge at Rs 1.5 crore. “It will take us about two months to repair. However, it is safe for traffic,” Chanda said.

Port trust officials said the vessel had flouted river traffic norms by keeping to one side even in high water. The port circulates high- and low-tide schedules to vessel owners.

“It’s a mistake by the vessel’s master. It’s unheard of for a vessel to get stuck under the bridge,” Chanda said.

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