|(From top) The charred shell of the Volvo bus (Model 9400XL), flames engulf the bus on Wednesday morning and an undamaged vehicle of the same make. (G. Vijayalakshmi)
Hyderabad, Oct. 30: As many as 45 passengers were charred to death at dawn inside a Volvo bus, a brand that enjoys the trust of young professionals, marries safety to comfort and symbolises the changes that have marked long-distance road travel in India in the past decade.
Preliminary accounts by police suggest human tampering and high speed may have played a role in the accident — the worst involving a Volvo bus in the country.
If the final conclusion matches the early assessment, it will mean that the familiar reckless behaviour on Indian roads has again defeated engineering acumen aimed at improving the quality of life.
The accident took place around 130km from Hyderabad when the bus skidded while overtaking a car, hit a culvert, which ignited a fire in its fuel tank and burnt alive many passengers who were sleeping.
The bus was on its way from Bangalore to Hyderabad — two landmarks on the country’s information technology highway — and half-burnt books on software programs suggested several of the passengers were IT professionals.
A poignant remnant was the burnt resume of a software engineer, A. Ravi, who was on his way to Hyderabad to join a multinational outsourcing company. ( )
The tragedy occurred around 5.10am — considered the most risk-prone time for night drivers who tend to let their guard down because of fatigue and the reassuring first light.
The Volvo, which had left Bangalore around 11 last night, was smouldering three hours after the accident near Kothakota in Mahbubnagar district.
Mahbubnagar district collector Girija Shankar, who supervised relief operations, said most of the bodies had been burnt beyond recognition and DNA tests would have to be conducted to establish their identities. The police have appealed for DNA samples from the relatives of those who took the bus. At least one child was among the dead.
The bus, run by the Karnataka-based Jabbar Travels which bought it from a politician, had 51 people on board, including the driver and the helper. Four injured passengers, the driver, Firoz, and the cleaner, Faiyaz, managed to jump off. One passenger who made it to the door collapsed and died.
Sohanjeet Randhawa, head of marketing, Volvo Buses India, said the tragic accident was being studied from all angles. “Our team has already landed at the accident spot, and we are still in the process of gathering all the relevant information,” he said, adding the findings would have a bearing on new bus designs.
Based on preliminary information, the police blamed high speed. “It seems the bus was travelling at a high speed when its fuel tank hit the roadside culvert, caught fire and burst. The entire bus has been gutted,” said a police officer.
The speed limit on Indian highways has been set at 80kmph by the transport authorities. Volvo buses, which can clock up to 140kmph, have speed governors, which regulate fuel intake and ensure that the speed stays within a prescribed limit that can be adjusted.
But automobile operators and police officers said the speed governors could be removed by mechanics — a charge that found an echo today.
B. Venkatesh, the circle inspector of Kothakota, the accident site, said the driver had claimed that the bus did not have a speed governor.
Andhra transport minister Botsa Satyanarayana said the bus did not have a proper fitness certificate beyond 2011 and about Rs 12 lakh was due in road taxes.
A PTI report, however, quoted a member of the transport operator’s family as saying the vehicle had a valid permit.
“We have the valid permit, fitness certificate and insurance and the bus was being serviced every 25,000km,” Jamil Jabbar told reporters. Karnataka transport commissioner K. Amarnarayana told PTI the fitness certificate was valid till October 6, 2014.
Sources said officials had got a list of 33 passengers who had reserved seats from Bangalore but some persons boarded later at different points on the 592km National Highway 7, a busy four-lane stretch between the two IT hubs.
Nearly 150 private and 50 government luxury buses ply between Hyderabad and Bangalore every day.
Volvo buses are a familiar sight on Bengal’s roads, too. Of the 4,000-odd such buses in India, 75 run in Bengal.
The Volvo buses cost between Rs 70 lakh and Rs 1.10 crore, while most Indian buses are priced within Rs 60 lakh. Buses of the Swedish company found quick acceptance because, at 14 metres, they are longer than many 12-metre buses seen on Indian roads. The longer the bus, the more spacious it is, and the Volvo does offer more legroom than most others.
The Volvo seats can be reclined at a 35-degree angle and has lumbar (lower spine) support, making them more comfortable than those in many other buses.
The Volvo’s braking system has retarders, which make the halt faster and smoother. Indian brands also have this feature but the Volvo system is considered superior.