Thrown open to the public in 1943, Howrah bridge has seen it all ' crippling weight of vehicular traffic, lunatics clambering up the structure, lorries tumbling into the river, a youth slipping to his death in the Hooghly' But never has it suffered an 'attack' from below.
For the first time in the 62-year-old history of Calcutta's most famous landmark, Howrah bridge suffered a belly blow from the water running beneath it, as MV Moni barged into it on Friday afternoon.
The crew of the cargo vessel did everything wrong ' from attempting to sail below the bridge when the tide was rising, to choosing the wrong channel to sail upstream.
And after hitting Howrah bridge and getting stuck under it, the crew members on the barge got it all wrong again. Had they not been stopped in time, the bridge may have suffered far more extensive damage than it did on Friday.
The solid iron mast of the barge, which could not clear the bridge, had already damaged two of the six girders on the Howrah side of the structure, making a dent that will cost an estimated Rs 1.5 crore to repair. But if the crew had continued in its misguided attempt to free the vessel, the damage may have run into hundreds of crores.
After MV Moni got stuck at 1.10 pm, the desperate crew tried to free it themselves, without alerting the Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) authorities.
Instead, they called a smaller vessel stationed nearby for help. They then proceeded to try and tug it free by tying a rope to the barge. Not only was the tug in vain, it could have hurt the landmark further.
The news of the distressed vessel reached the CPT's head office on Strand Road around 1.45 pm. A team of officials rushed to the spot immediately to take stock of the unprecedented situation.
It was clear from the outset that the bridge was in some danger. 'We only had one thing in mind, to save the bridge,' said A.K. Chanda chairman of the CPT.
Engineers realised that the ad hoc rescue operation the barge was attempting was causing more harm than good.
'The damage to the bridge would have been less had the crew informed us immediately,' Chanda pointed out.
'The bridge itself might have been in danger had the barge been pulled at for longer than it had been,' he added.
CPT officials realised the only way to free the barge and prevent further damage to the bridge was to cut the mast and part of the master's cabin.
All vehicular traffic was stopped around 3 pm and engineers advised the crew to cut the mast. 'Initially, the crew turned down our proposal, saying this would damage their barge,' said Captain A.K. Bagchi, director, marine department, CPT.
But the port officials stood firm in their decision. Police also intervened to convince the crew to heed the CPT engineers' advice.
Contractors with gas cutters arrived on the scene and were transported to MV Moni on Vir Hanuman, a river traffic police vessel. Two cutters were used to cut the mast and a portion of the bridge deck.
It took half an hour to cut the mast and roof of the master's cabin down to size and the barge was finally freed from the bridge around 4.35 pm.
'It was still high water, but since the height of the vessel was reduced, it could move out from under the bridge,' explained Bagchi.
At 4.45 pm, MV Moni was steered to Shibpur jetty and Howrah bridge was reopened for peak-hour vehicular movement.