Domohona (North Dinajpur), Aug. 22: A bridge whose wooden planks had been crumbling for months gave way this afternoon, plunging many into the swollen Sudani 40 feet below.
Witnesses said several schoolchildren were on the bridge, but the district administration could not say whether all of them went into the river.
Eight people were pulled out and Pulobala Devi, 65, died.
The bridge between Dalkhola and Domohona is part of National Highway 34, connecting Calcutta with Siliguri and the Northeast.
Teachers of Rahatpur High Madarsa in Dalkhola said many of its students, who were returning home, could be missing. “We have sent people to the villages to find out whether they reached home,” said headmaster Mohammed Nurul Islam.
Some schoolbooks were found, but the water rendered their owners’ names illegible.
Late in the evening, the parents of Nasir Hussain (Class V), Sheikh Nasim Akhtar (Class VI) and Mohammed Firdaus (Class X) informed the school that they had not returned.
In the absence of any official rescue mission, local people used rafts made of banana plants to reach those in the water. Raiganj SDO Ashok Das said the army would begin a search tomorrow.
The Bailey bridge was laid on the original concrete one after a pillar partially sank in the riverbed during the 2000 floods. Since then, the remains of the old bridge and the new iron span on top have developed faults regularly and disrupted heavy traffic, but only patchwork repairs were made.
Around 1.10pm today, a pillar caved in, as a result of which the Bailey bridge shot up in the air and a breach was created. Labourer Rezaul saw it going up like an end of a seesaw.
But local people found an ingenious way to get over it. “Boys from Dalkhola” were charging Rs 5 to 10 for allowing people to use ladders to reach the other end.
“I was awaiting my turn when the concrete portion of the bridge rose with a rumbling sound and hit the iron bridge, flinging many into the river,” Rezaul said.
Many of those who fell clutched on to a telephone cable and clambered up.
Madarsa teacher Jalaluddin Ahmed said a holiday was declared earlier than usual today after the bridge collapse in the early afternoon. But then the second mishap occurred.
“I can’t say how many are missing,” district magistrate Sukumar Bhattacharjee said.
The director of the National Highway Authority of India’s Malda division had apparently told the DM after the first accident that movement across the bridge had to be stopped.
Additional superintendent of police Subrata Banerjee said the people “should have been more careful”.