| Father of Pintu Modi, who was in the bus, in front of the morgue at Howrah General Hospital. Picture by Pabitra Das
Panchla (Howrah), Jan. 28: A 34-foot inferno on wheels raced through the early-morning fog that sat on National Highway 6 heavier than the darkness of night. Driver Achyutananda Sarangi left the road and steered the flaming vehicle into a portion of the highway under construction because, through the swirl of invisibility, he thought he had sighted a pond.
Behind the driver’s cabin the bus was ablaze with 57 passengers, many of them asleep moments ago.
Sarangi had seen right. But as the bus plunged into the pond there was no splash of life-saving water. It was dry. And 37 people were dead. Burnt alive.
As the first rays of the sun pierced through the fog, on the opposite side of the road a large body of water hove into view — tragically full. The dry and the wet ponds separated by about 120 metres or less.
Sarangi had guided his blazing bus nearly a 100 metres after it collided with a truck carrying paints and chemicals and burst into flames around 4.30 this morning, some 40 km from Calcutta. Had he gone right, instead of veering the bus to the left, he would have found what he was looking for, water. Sarangi did not know.
In about half-an-hour, leaping flames had eaten the bus up to its metal frame. The dead had been charred beyond recognition. Only two could be identified. In 20 others, all that could be determined was their gender. Not even that for 14.
Eighteen have been admitted to hospital, among them the drivers of the two vehicles. Two cousins — Prasanta Sethi and Purnendu Bikash Behra — escaped almost without a scratch.
“I was keeping to the left lane and it was the goods vehicle that hit my bus head-on from the right,” Sarangi, with 65 to 70 per cent burns, said from his hospital bed.
The driver of the truck, Ramdayal Yadav, also in a hospital, was not in a state to reply to the allegation.
The two cleaners of the vehicles were missing till evening.
The bus, called Kumar and Kumar, carrying several cloth merchants from Baripada and nearby areas of Orissa on their way to Howrah’s famous wholesale weekly market Mangla haat, had started at 11.45 pm on Monday.
Partha Haldar, on night duty in a petrol pump close to the accident site, was the first to see the blazing bus. “There was dense fog all around. We heard a terrible noise. As I came out I saw a moving inferno.”
Like him, local youths who rushed to the site as soon as they learnt about it could do nothing. “The flames of both the bus and the truck were 10-12 feet high. We collected water and tried to douse the flames but a bucketful was like a drop of dew.”
Fifteen-year-old Subal had rushed towards the bus to save a woman who was hanging from a window, her torso on fire. “I grabbed her feet (she was trying to climb out) and pulled. Both of us fell down and some other people dragged us away.”
Eight to 10 passengers escaped by jumping out after breaking the window panes.
The local people informed the fire brigade within 15 minutes, but by the time the firefighters arrived there was only the smell of charred flesh and burnt chemicals. One after the other, they pulled out the blackened bodies.
Pieces of burnt hands, fingers and legs fell in heaps on the ground after the bus was heaved up from the ditch on the roadside.
Officials surmised that both vehicles were travelling fast and the bus, too, had its share of inflammable substances (like LPG cylinders). Though the paint, varnish and spirit the truck was carrying should take most of the blame for the fire, the devastated state of the bus indicated that there were smokers and LPG inside, officials said.
It also appears that the bus had already had a minor accident some time before it collided with the truck when it hit a goods vehicle. Under that impact, the left windshield had cracked and in the heat later it gave way, offering an escape hatch to Sethi and Behra.
The cousins were escorted to the petrol pump where they were given water and shelter. The injured followed them only to find another round of tragedy waiting. Sonamoni Bindhari and sister-in-law Phuleshwari were in a group of five adults and a child. All the adults were alive.
Two-and-a-half-year-old Tapaswini was dead. Desperate to save her daughter, Phuleshwari had thrown her out of the burning bus.