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Crushed at callous crossing

- 19 die as autorickshaw collides with express train, gateman on the run

Sugauli (East Champaran), Aug. 18: At least 19 people returning from a Janmashtami fair in an autorickshaw were crushed to death when an express train hurtling down the tracks rammed into the vehicle that had passed through a level crossing whose gates were open in East Champaran district.

Samastipur divisional railway manager Arun Malik, however, confirmed the death of 15 persons. Two persons are said to be severely injured.

The accident occurred around 3pm, barely 20 minutes after the Muzaffarpur-Dehradun Rapti Ganga Express left Bapudham Motihari railway station. Around the same time, a bunch of people from the Chiknauta village was returning from an annual Janmashtami fair held on the premises of the Bansapti Devi temple in nearby Semra.

Dharmendra Jha, a local resident who witnessed the accident, said the autorickshaw, packed with villagers, was crossing the tracks as the gates of the level crossing near Chhapra Bahas village had not been closed. The Dehradun-bound train was speeding town the tracks at about 70kmph and rammed into the autorickshaw. Such was the impact that the train dragged the autorickshaw for more than 200m before coming to a halt, Jha said.

The accident site is located around 180km northwest of Patna and falls on the Semra-Sugauli section of East Central Railway (ECR).

Residents blamed a lapse on the part of the railway administration for the accident as the railway crossing is a “manned” one. They said the gateman, Santosh Kumar, fled immediately after the accident. Besides, both the driver and the guard of the train were also found absent from the train. Neither was any RPF official travelling on the train seen there.

Samastipur divisional railway manager Malik said the gateman had been put under suspension for alleged negligence of duty.

“Under the rules, the assistant station master of the nearest railway station informs the gateman as soon as a train leaves from the nearby stoppage. In this case also, the assistant station master of Semra railway station informed the gateman but he (the gateman) didn’t close the gate (less than a kilometre away from Semra station), leading to the accident,” Malik said and added that a high-level inquiry had been set up to fix responsibility.

Another ECR official said the traffic inspector of Bapudham Motihari railway station, B.M. Tripathi, and the assistant station master of Semra railway station, Sunil Kumar, had also been placed under suspension.

Fearing the wrath of the people, the entire staff of the Sugauli railway station went into hiding for hours together. At least an hour after the accident, police reached the site but preferred to keep away in view of the anger of the people.

For hours together, the train was surrounded by a mob, which, however, protected the passengers and did not harm them.

Almost three hours after the accident, East Champaran district magistrate Abhay Kumar Singh and superintendent of police Sudhir Kumar Singh reached the spot and took stock of the situation. They were camping near the accident site in view of the growing tension there. “With co-operation of the local people, we are first trying to pull out the auto-rickshaw and some bodies out of the engine,” Abhay said.

The Bihar government announced an ex gratia of Rs 1.5 lakh for next of kin of those who lost lives in the collision. Chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi said the rail administration should take preventive steps against such accidents. Manjhi also urged the people to take precaution while crossing railway tracks.

The railways too announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh to the families of those who died in the accident, Rs 1 lakh to those seriously injured and Rs 20,000 to those suffering minor injuries.

After remaining stranded at the accident site for over four hours, the train started its onward journey around 7.30pm.

The accident comes almost a year after another similar mishap. On August 19, 2013, the Rajyarani Express had run over passengers at Dhamara railway station in Khagaria district leading to death of at least 28 people who had gathered there to visit a temple.