| Rescue workers search the wreckage of Rajdhani Express on Tuesday. (AFP) n See Metro and The wrecked Rajdhani, Pages 6 & 8
Rafiganj (Aurangabad), Sept. 10: Mohammed Irshad will not be the only one who’s lived — and regretted every moment of it — to tell this tale.
“We were all asleep and suddenly the whole thing went zigzag. It lasted a couple of minutes. When it was over, I realised my wife and children had been crushed to death.”
When the engine of the Rajdhani Express from Calcutta to Delhi, running at 130 km an hour, tore off the body of the train and the coach right behind crashed through the rail bridge, bogie after bogie ramming into it and piling on top of one another, most of the passengers inside were asleep.
At least 50 of them will never wake up — that is the official toll. Most of these bodies have been pulled out of a single coach of the air-conditioned luxury train, which was carrying around 600 passengers and railway staff. Another at least 150 passengers have been shifted to hospitals in Aurangabad and Gaya, from where the site of the accident that occurred close to 11 pm on Monday night is 130 km.
The government is talking of a final toll of around 75, but the extent of the tragedy will only unfold over the next two days. The condition of 50 of the injured was said to be critical.
“Having boarded the train at Dhanbad, I had just fallen asleep in coach AS-5 when the roaring engine drifted away from the train and rushed ahead while the coaches began jumping the tracks and falling down. I felt as if this was the end of the world for me. But I am lucky to be alive,” said Vikash Goel, who sustained injuries on his chest and hand.
Witnesses said the train left Gaya station at 10.30 pm and around 10.45 the accident took place. But it took about two hours for information to reach the railway authorities as there is no habitation within three kilometres of the accident site.
The worst tragedy to befall the showpiece Rajdhani Express — described as a “unique opportunity of experiencing Indian Railways at its best” — was blamed on sabotage by Naxalites who are active in the area and on an ill-maintained bridge that, after nearly 90 years of pounding, could not take the weight any more.
The explanation depended on which side of the fence the person was sitting. Railway minister Nitish Kumar claimed that fishplates had been removed and that the evidence was there for all to see. How the engine roared ahead over missing fishplates remains a mystery, though.
“The truth behind the disaster would be out soon and following a probe order the Railway Safety Commission is already on the job,” Kumar said.
Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, also the home minister, said in his initial reaction that he believed the tragedy to be an accident.
Political considerations quickly came into play as Kumar’s Bihar rival Laloo Prasad Yadav said the mishap was “due to a 90-year-old unrepaired bridge”.
For supporters of the sabotage theory, the dominance of Naxalites in the region is coming in handy. But Bihar police officers explained that though Naxalites have blown up tracks in the past, they have never targeted trains.
Later in the day, the Railway Board saw the possible hand of the ISI, too.
The bridge over which the accident occurred was built in 1916 and the last repairs were made in December last year.
Witnesses said the train lurched off the tracks and the engine carried on for some yards before the first bogie fell on low land on the bank of the river Dhawa. Four coaches behind it, AS-2, 3, 4 and 5, piled on to the first. Coaches AS-6, 7 and 8 hung precariously from the track over the thin flow of the river. The worst damaged coaches were AS-1 to 5. Most of the bodies that rescuers had extricated were from AS-1.
Some coaches were hurled into nearby flatland, the mangled wreckage of some jutting grotesquely, while the entire riverbed area was littered with torn pillows, shoes and other belongings of passengers. Blood had trickled down broken windows on to the tracks.
“The first coach split into three pieces while the next three telescoped into it from behind after a violent ramming,” said Pankaj Das, a passenger who was awake as he had boarded the train at Gaya.
Relief workers, who reached the spot at least three hours after the accident, were not equipped with enough gas-cutters and hammers. Hundreds of passengers, still trapped inside coaches were screaming for help. “We were able to extricate 50 bodies but this was from only one coach. Two bogies are yet to be brought under the relief operation,” said A.K. Saxena, divisional railway manager, Mughal Sarai.
Even 10 hours after the accident, rescue was slow and interrupted not only by gusts of late monsoon rain, but also by surging crowds of onlookers, some of whom had eyes only for the belongings of the passengers.
Amid the ruins, a little child from a nearby village was playing with a plastic container of rosogollas, trying to figure out what was inside.