No news was terrible news at Howrah station on Tuesday. As hundreds of anxious relatives and friends waited for word of victims and survivors of the tragedy on Rajdhani Express, the information flow was at best, a trickle. Otherwise, it was a deathly silence from railway counters, drowned by cries of anguish and shouts of anger.
Twelve hours had passed since the Rajdhani jumped the rails near Rafiganj, while crossing the river Dhawa. But Howrah station, from where the 2301 Up had left at 5 pm on Monday, was struggling to provide any news — forget solace — to the friends and family of passengers flocking the platforms and counter from early morning.
The first special information kiosk was, strangely, put up by the Eastern Railway Men’s Congress (railway labour wing of the Congress) and not by the railway authorities. For those who queued up at Howrah, waiting for any bit of information, clinging on to the slightest sign of hope, there was no special facility. The first documented information from the railway authorities came around 11 am — a hopelessly inadequate list of 35 injured passengers.
If lack of information was not bad enough, there was misinformation to add to the woes of the waiting. The “most cruel joke” the authorities played on the bunch, according to Shah Alam, from Dhaka, was “the number of the hospital at Sasaram” where some of the injured had reportedly been taken.
When Alam dialled the number, a woman’s voice told him the phone was some distance from the hospital. “Call again after about 30 minutes,” she told Alam, whose nephew, Syed Khalilullah, had come to Calcutta and was on his way to Ajmer Sharif, for the Urs festival, via Delhi. Alam had no news about his nephew or his eight friends — who were accompanying him — and he blamed the railway authorities for the “failure to provide any proper information”.
The chaos and confusion intensified in the run-up to the departure of the “relief train” for Mughal Sarai. At first scheduled to leave in the morning, the 13-bogie train finally pulled out of Howrah station at 12.30 pm. By 4 pm, railway officials had managed to put up a list of nine passengers who had died. Some 90 minutes later, the list read 13.
Till late in the evening, Krishna Chandra didn’t have a clue about her husband, Colonel Subhas Chandra. Neither did Bhagwant Singh, desperately seeking some news of his relatives, S. Singh, S.P. Singh and J. Singh, travelling in coach AS-2.
Mingling with anxious mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers were the political parties. Mamata Banerjee had put in the first appearance early in the morning, leaving behind men sporting black-and-white badges that read “Stop bifurcation of Eastern Railway”. The Janata Dal (S) shouted “Nitish Kumar murdabad”; a man from a party cultural wing ran around with a piece of chart paper reading: “We are here to share your sorrow”.
The grieving weren’t amused: “They came to make the headlines and be seen on TV.”
nMore reports on Page 23