| A woman wails in a Chennai hospital. (AFP)
Chennai, Dec. 18: A sudden downpour set off a stampede among 4,500 jostling flood-relief seekers in a Chennai school today, killing at least 42 people, 24 of them women.
Thirty-seven others were injured, many with their arms or legs crushed, as tragedy revisited the flood-battered state a week before the anniversary of last year’s tsunami.
The relief tokens ' against which families would receive a modest dole later in the day ' were to be handed out from 9 am, but the queue before the school gates had swelled to 4,000 by 3.45 am, police said.
“People had queued up from last evening. They were pretty agitated,” said a resident of the locality, MGR Nagar.
With rumours flying that today was the last date for relief distribution ' and that only 1,000 coupons would be handed out ' the crowd’s restlessness grew by the minute. The rain, which came pelting down around 5 am, triggered a mad rush to get inside.
The gates gave way and many of those in front fell. Some tripped on a rope tied across the entrance to control the crowd. But the rest ran forward, unconcerned about those they were trampling under their feet.
“I thought I was done for as I fell when everybody rushed in together. Several others also fell to the ground and scores ran over my body,” said a tearful Namasivayam from his hospital bed.
“After that horrific run was over, I somehow managed to move my neck around and tried to stand up. I saw many lying dead on both sides.”
Slippers lay in a heap before the school this morning. “I came here with my mother but I am going home alone,” said 28-year-old Kalyani, whose mother Manikambal, 51, died in the stampede.
“There were only a handful of policemen and they could not do anything to control the crowd,” a resident said.
The tragedy was almost a rerun of a stampede that had killed six women relief seekers and injured 15 in front of a college in another Chennai locality on November 6.
That queue had been 10,000 strong, similar rumours had been doing the rounds, and a sudden push had brought the gates down at 3.45 am ' five hours before counters would open.
The incident had prompted the state government to ask officials to ensure that no token counter catered to more than 500 families, thus pre-empting long queues. The school was chosen as the venue for MGR Nagar, instead of ration shops located in narrow lanes, just to avoid a stampede.
With the Assembly polls just five months away, the Jayalalithaa government has been handing each flood-affected family a dole of Rs 2,000 in cash, 10 kg rice, a sari and a dhoti.
Today, the chief minister announced an ex gratia of Rs 1 lakh for the family of each of the dead and Rs 15,000 for each injured.