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Stampede in dark at Metro station

- Snag and smoke trigger blackout and scurry for exit, suicide stalls trains

More than 2,000 Metro commuters were caught in a stampede in near darkness at Chandni Chowk station on Sunday evening after a snag in the third rail triggered sparks, a loud sound, smoke and then a blackout.

Many suffered cuts and bruises in the melee and hundreds of people emerged from the station dripping with sweat and gasping for breath. At least one person needed stitches to close a gash on his forehead, possibly caused by a fall while making a dash for the nearest exit.

Most of the commuters were inside a north-bound train that had entered the station at 5.40pm. As the doors opened, they heard a large sound, followed by sparks from the third rail and white smoke that spiralled into some of the coaches and spread across the platform.

Screams of “fire…fire” from the northern end of the station were followed by a blackout that sent everyone inside the train and on the platform scurrying for the stairs and the escalator on the opposite side.

“There was a loud noise and the lights went out. I was wondering what could have happened when I heard passengers in the first compartment screaming that the train had caught fire. People who had been standing on the platform shouted that there had been a blast. Everyone started running towards the opposite side and I did the same,” said Sanjay Kumar Shaw, who was in the second compartment of the non-AC rake.

If darkness caused the stampede, the smoke made it worse. “You couldn’t see beyond three to four feet and even breathing became difficult,” Sanjay said.

Many tripped and fell on the stairs and the stationary escalator. Some fell in a heap in their hurry to jump over the turnstiles and the barricades.

Passengers later said Metro personnel at the station did little to guide them to safety. Soma Mondal, a first-year student of Maharaja Manindra Chandra Dey College, suffered back and leg injuries. Her sister Keya had cuts and bruises on her left hand and the back of the neck. “In the chaos, we lost our shopping bag and my mobile phone fell on the tracks,” Keya said.

The Mondal sisters, who had boarded the train at Esplanade after some shopping, were in the last compartment and unaware of what was happening until people on the platform screamed for them to come out.

“Someone said there was a fire in the engine. Holding my sister’s hand, I ran. As we tried to climb the escalator, I slipped and fell. Before I could get up, I was trampled by three pairs of feet,” Soma, a resident of Dum Dum, recounted.

Metro Railway said the “current collector” of the first compartment, a rod-like part that draws power from the third rail to the train, possibly scraped an object lying on the tracks, leading to sparks and smoke.

“A Metro train runs on 750 volts of power. Even if a small plastic packet comes in touch with the current collector, it can cause a spark and thick smoke,” an official said.

The train resumed its journey 10 minutes after the incident occurred. Half an hour later, there was a suicide at Esplanade station, leading to another disruption.

At 6.25pm, an unidentified man in his twenties jumped in front of a south-bound AC train just as it entered Esplanade station. Trains were suspended between Esplanade and MG Road for nearly an hour. Truncated Metro services were available between Dum Dum and Girish Park in the north and Kavi Subhash and Maidan in the south.. Normality was restored at 7.19pm.

By then, thousands were forced to go through the usual transport pain that follows any Metro disruption. The bus stand outside Esplanade station was flooded with people, the crowd comprising mostly shoppers and young people on the way home after a day out with friends.

“I was to take a train to Girish Park when I heard services had been suspended. I have been on the road for over 20 minutes and not a single bus has come by,” said IT employee Rohit Aich around 6.45pm.

Ankit Bakuli, a hotel management student from Baguiati, said every taxi driver he had approached wanted more than the metered fare.

Metro Railway should count itself lucky that both incidents occurred on a Sunday. Chandni Chowk and Esplanade stations are on either side of the dais from which Mamata Banerjee will address the Maa-Mati Manush Divas rally on Monday and any such disruption, especially the stampede, would be catastrophic.