Lalgarh, Sept. 21: Utpal Bhakta had defused several landmines before. This time, too, he had cut the wire leading off the milk can stuffed with explosives into the dense forest.
From a distance, using a hook he pulled the can out of the earth slowly, picked it up and placed it on the side of the road.
Then he set about opening the lid, tightly sealed with a waterproof adhesive. His tools: a hammer and chisel.
The next moment, 40-year-old Bhakta’s world was blown to pieces under the morning sky. And that of his colleague Basudeb Chakraborty, 50.
Both members of the bomb disposal squad were flung into the air by the explosion. As were several photographers, among them Soumeshwar Mondal, whose works are used by Anandabazar Patrika.
Mandal, who had taken pictures until the moment of the blast, was being treated in a Calcutta hospital for critical injuries.
Other policemen and journalists present there ran for their lives, their bodies splattered with blood.
At least 27 people were injured in the explosion in Maoist-infested Lalgarh in West Midnapore district, about 180 km from Calcutta. Among them was Sumit Chaturvedi, additional superintendent of police (headquarters), who called for help on his mobile.
“Some could not run. They sat on the road screaming while nursing their injuries,” said Somnath Biswas, a constable who had accompanied the bomb disposal squad from Belpahari, 60 km away.
Banibrata Basu, inspector-general (western range), admitted that it was “clearly a trap” laid by the guerrillas.
The landmine was fitted inside a steel milk can, most of which was embedded in the soft rain-soaked earth on the side of the Midnapore-Sarenga road.
A red-and-black wire fixed to the can went about 30 metres inside the Jhitka forest and was wrapped around a black folio bag. Over the mine, the guerrillas had placed a felled tree that covered almost half the road.
Villagers using the road first noticed the tree and then detected the mine. They informed Lalgarh police station, about one-and-a-half km away, its inspector-in-charge arriving around 8.30 with a team. He called in the bomb disposal squad who reached the spot two-and-a-half hours later.
“We have defused such mines before. Two of our men, Bhakta and Chakraborty, walked towards it (the mine) with the tool kit,” said Biswas, the constable.
Around the same time another team of policemen, led by the additional SP, arrived from the Midnapore police line accompanied by a group of journalists, including photographers.
Bhakta, who had defused a number of such mines in Belpahari and Lalgarh areas, went about his job as the photographers hovered behind him.
“Utpal picked up the wire carefully from the ground and cut it with a knife. Then he took out a length of string from the tool bag that has an iron hook fitted at one end. He swung the hook from a distance and it landed on the handle of the can,” said Biswas.
The hammer and chisel went to work from here on.
Basu said the bomb squad should have been more careful. “This is clearly a human error. This is not the proper way to defuse powerful explosives.”
In Calcutta, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee conceded that it was a mistake. “We hope to learn from the incident.”