Cooch Behar, Aug. 29: As many as 15 people, many of them school students and young job aspirants, died this afternoon when a suspected tyre-burst sent a minibus hurtling into a pond beside the Cooch Behar-Dinhata road.
Preliminary investigations suggested that the driver of the bus lost control around 1pm after its right front tyre burst. It is not clear yet if the tyre was old but worn-out accessories and ancillaries have been a bane of Bengals public transport system.
The tube within the tyre was visible through the burst layer when the bus was fished out of water two hours after the accident. The delay and alleged lack of preparedness of the administration triggered a backlash with a mob attacking police.
No one was inside the bus when it was winched out. Some people claimed the driver and the conductor had fled but the version could not be confirmed independently.
Officials expressed the fear that some people could have been trapped in the silt of the pond bed.
The officials could not say with certainty if anyone was missing as no one knew how many passengers the crowded bus was ferrying. Such vehicles can ferry around 50 persons, although it can seat only 25-30.
Around 1.45pm — 45 minutes after the accident — Dinhata subdivisional officer Chiranjib Ghosh and the superintendent of the Dewanhat block primary health centre, Nikhil Das, arrived at the accident spot to face angry demonstrations.
At the health centre, about 200 metres away, five persons were declared brought dead followed by four others. Two persons died on way to the Dinhata hospital. At MJN Hospital in Cooch Behar town, four persons were declared dead on arrival.
A crane was brought at 3pm and the bus was hauled out of the water.
An hour later, the mob that gathered in front of the health centre began throwing stones at the police who retreated into the premises and burst tear gas shells. The people then smashed windowpanes of a police van parked some 50 metres from the health centre.
The mob attacked policemen with stones, injuring several of them, including the deputy superintendent of police (crime), Sandip Mondol.
Some people said they were taken aback by the lethargic response of the administration. They have no quick response team and no plan on how to handle such emergencies. Moreover, these private buses are never inspected and allowed to be overcrowded, said Anirban Dutta, who owns a roadside grocery at Dewanhat.
District magistrate Smarki Mahapatra said: The police had to use a round of tear gas shell to disperse the crowd. Fifteen persons died in the accident.
At the morgue of the MJN Hospital stood Dilip Barman, whose son, a Class XII student from Dinhata, had gone to Cooch Behar in the morning for the clerkship examination. I have lost my son, but he had a friend with him, Tinku Barman, who also went for the test. We cannot find him, Barman mumbled.
Ratan Barman, 25, and his nephew Bimal Barman, 23, both exam candidates from Dinhata, have also died. They are gone and we had some other distant relatives, too, who had appeared for the test. They are missing, said Benoy Ray Sarkar, a relative of Ratan and Bimal.
Sakina Bibi, 25, who was in the bus with her son, Sakin Haque, 5, and sister Shaunaz Parveen, 18, survived as she forced open a windowpane and scrambled out as the bus slowly sank into the pond.
We were all standing in the crowded bus after boarding outside Cooch Behar town. Near Dewanhat, there was a loud bang and the bus that was going moderately fast fell onto the pond. We screamed as the water gushed in. I clutched my son and broke open a window, clambered out and pulled out my sister and son, she said, sitting in the house of Mozammel Haque, a farmer who lives near the accident site.
Residents managed to rescue three men and send them to the Dewanhat block primary health centre, where they are recovering.
Chanchal Kanti Roy, who works for an NGO at Dewanhat, said minibuses ply the 24-kilometre Cooch Behar-Dinhata route on a regular basis. They can carry around 50 passengers. I heard a loud bang and then saw the bus fall into the pond that is nearly 12 feet deep. As we rushed towards it, we realised that it was slowly sinking into the water, he said.