Dec. 29: A day-long search for 11 people who were in a multi-utility vehicle that plunged 300 m and into the Teesta river off the national highway at Sethikhola yesterday proved futile.
The rescue and recovery team could only locate the smashed Tata Spacio in which they were travelling.
The vehicle, carrying 12 people, was travelling from Darjeeling to Siliguri via Mangpoo near Kalimpong.
Police, fire brigade personnel and a team of holidaying navy divers who had been pressed into service found no trace of the 11 people who went missing after the fall.
Kalimpong additional superintendent of police S.K. Gazmer, who supervised the rescue operation, told The Telegraph over phone: “We are totally in the dark about the sequence of events that led to the accident. Kumar Sundas, the only survivor, is in a state of shock and could not throw much light on how the jeep skidded off the highway and plunged into the Teesta.”
The 20-year-old, who was admitted to the Kalimpong Subdivisional Hospital today, had a providential escape as he found himself caught between the branches of a tree that jutted out of the rocks.
Sundas sustained a minor injury in the head but could not tell what happened before or after the vehicle jumped the road. “I do not remember when the accident took place or how it happened since I was fast asleep at that time. When I woke up, I found myself hanging from a tree about five feet down the roadside,” said Sundas. Time and again, he enquired about the others in his vehicle.
“It was evening and dark when I regained consciousness and climbed up to the roadside. Local people then took me to a health centre at Rambhi,” said Sundas, a resident of Mariboong Tea Garden at Bijanbari.
Sundas told the police that there were a dozen people in the jeep. “My friend Sukdhev Subba and Raju Biswas were also there. The three of us were planning to go to Delhi in search of jobs. We had started from Darjeeling around 12:15 pm,” mumbled Sundas.
Subba and Biswas were both around 23 years of age and lived close to Sundas’ house.
Local divers, the additional superintendent of police said, failed to make any headway in the search operation because of the icy water and strong current.
“Fortunately, there was a group of navy divers and some boys from the National Defence Academy holidaying at Gangtok. On our request, the navy divers took part in the search operations today. There is a possibility that the passengers of the Spacio were washed further down the river,” said Gazmer.
“We have learnt from our sources that three passengers in that vehicle were police officers,” he added.
The driver of the ill-fated vehicle has been identified as Purna Desh Rai of Darjeeling.
“After we found the car, we traced the owner and that is how we got the name of the driver. It seems they had taken this route because of the snowfall, which had blocked all movement on the Hill Cart Road beyond Ghum,” the officer said.