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Tall, dark and terrifying

- Lightning kills three schoolgirls as cloud with ice topping and bottom heavy with rain strikes

Darkness descended on Calcutta hours before dusk on Monday, a monstrous mass of cloud topped with ice and its bottom heavy with rain unleashing tragedy along with a torrent.

At 2.30pm, a young company executive turned on his car’s headlights just like the train of vehicles on Central Avenue and mumbled: “Apocalypse now.”

He wouldn’t have known that his words would ring true some 40km away, where schoolgirls Chandana Mondal, Rupa Sardar and Sipra Parui had just huddled under the shade of a tea stall. A flash of lightning killed the three Class VI students of Hadipur Adarsha High School in Deganga, North 24-Parganas, where they stood.

Two of the girls were 14 and one 13. Six others were injured, two of them critically.

“The girls were chatting outside the school when the rain started. Several of them took shelter at the tea stall when lightning struck,” headmaster Sirajul Islam said.

A 50-year-old fisherman, Netai Mandal, was also struck by lightning near a bheri at Mahishbathan, on the fringe of Salt Lake. Ranjan Sona, 35, died while working in a field off the Bypass, near Science City.

At New Town, three construction workers suffered burns after coming in contact with a switchboard in their tin shelter.

A broken branch partially blocks a road near JU’s campus in Salt Lake, where as many as 70 trees were either uprooted or damaged. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

Not less than 70 trees were either uprooted or damaged in Salt Lake, about half of them in the vicinity of Jadavpur University’s campus in the township.

A taxi driver was injured when a branch fell on him. Parts of Sector V and blocks BA, CA, AG and AF were flooded in just an hour and a half of rain.

The rainfall was uneven, as is characteristic of cumulonimbus clouds. Alipore received 19.5mm of rain, Dum Dum 29.4 and Salt Lake more than double the quantity at 67mm.

Some other parts of the city to be lashed by heavy rain were Dhapa with 68mm, Ultadanga with 65mm, and Belgachhia and Beleghata with 56mm each. North Calcutta received more rain than the south, though areas along the EM Bypass were lashed, too.

In the tech hub of Sector V, employees of various companies were seen wading through water to return home. “Rickshaws were asking for Rs 40 to cross a 100-metre stretch near RDB Cinemas,” a techie said.

The weather office has warned of heavy to very heavy rainfall on Tuesday.

The cyclonic circulation that had led to the formation of the cumulonimbus cloud on Monday has moved away but there’s a low-pressure area headed this way.

“The cyclonic circulation has weakened as it is moving towards Jharkhand. But a fresh low-pressure area has formed on the Bay of Bengal and is moving towards the Bengal coast,” said a senior official of the regional Met office in Alipore. “The low-pressure area is expected to hit the coast within the next 24 hours and stay active for another day at least,” he said.

The day temperature that had surged to 35.8 degrees Celsius around noon dipped once rain drenched the city. The Met official said it would drop further on Tuesday to around 30 degrees Celsius.

“The high temperature and humidity in the morning and moisture drawn from the sea by the cyclonic circulation led to the formation of the monstrous cloud,” the official said.

Flight operations at the airport were disrupted during the storm. Four flights could not land for more than half an hour because of lightning, airport officials said.

Air India’s Yangon and Lengpui flights, a Jet Airways flight from Mumbai and SpiceJet’s Bagdogra-Calcutta flight hovered over the city from 2.45pm till 3.15 pm before they could land.

“There was lightning and visibility was poor,” an airport official said.

Just as the car headlights came on early, so did the lights in shops, offices and homes across the city.

“Traffic was slow and the signals weren’t working. It was scary if you were out, mainly because of the lightning,” said a 40-year-old resident of Belgachhia who was headed for his office in Esplanade when the sky darkened and the rain came pouring.

The police said they turned off the traffic signals, fearing short circuit.

At busy crossings, cops with umbrellas and green police volunteers in reflector jackets tried hard to maintain the flow of traffic in the absence of signals.

Commuters crowded the entrance of every Metro station, waiting for the rain and lightning to stop. “I had stopped carrying an umbrella after the wet spell last week ended,” rued Tania Bhowmik, a resident of Jadavpur stranded at Central Metro station.

Several parts of north Calcutta, including Amherst Street, Colootola Street, Sukeas Street, Ganesh Chandra Avenue and portions of CR Avenue, were waterlogged for a while.

A depression that developed over the Bay of Bengal on August 18 before moving into Gangetic West Bengal had brought as much as 250mm of rain in three days before moving further inland. A dry spell followed, only to be blown away by the fury of Monday’s thunderstorm.