| Sethi and Behra at the Panchla petrol pump. Picture by Pabitra Das
Jan. 28: Prasanta Sethi had only a singed head-scarf and a shirt smudged with paint to show that he was involved in the mishap that killed 37 others, hours ago. Purnendu Bikash Behra did not have even that to show.
The cousins — Sethi, a trader, and Behra, on his first trip to Calcutta — were the first to clamber out of the blazing bus with some help from the villagers of Panchla-Parania. They were visibly unscathed. They were also the only ones to come out of the bus that way. Everyone else who made it out were either dead or injured.
The cousins — when they recovered from the shock of being alive — tried to explain how they lived to tell the tale.
There were many theories – that they were not sleeping, that one of them was standing and the other was near a partially-broken windshield — but the brothers appeared convinced that it was something much more incomprehensible that saved them.
Sethi, 29, has been a regular visitor to Calcutta from his Baripada home for the past few years. For the trader who made a living buying garments from Mangla haat in Howrah and elsewhere in Calcutta and selling them in his hometown, this trip was different. He was coming to get his 25-year-old cousin introduced to the family business.
Both of them boarded the bus at Baripada around 11.30 pm on Monday. Sethi found a seat inside the driver’s cabin. Behra was less lucky; he got a place to stand near the rear.
When the bus hit the truck five hours into the journey, both were saved by something that happened minutes ago. The bus hit a goods vehicle at Kolaghat and the windshield developed cracks. This windshield gave way in the heat and paved way for their escape.
“I was too taken aback by the impact to see exactly what had hit the bus and what happened to others,” Sethi recounted. “But, when I turned to the rear of the bus to see where my cousin was, I saw a figure approach me. When it came very close, I recognised my cousin.”
“I was probably the only one awake in the rear of the bus and found my way to the driver’s cabin, blocked by smoke and flames,” Behra said. “The fact that I was awake and saw what happened probably saved my life.”
After the union, came another stroke of luck; the windshield gave way. Behra followed Sethi out of the bus.
A crowd had gathered outside the bus by then.
Around noon, the brothers took a bus to Baripada.