The mother of one of the children breaks down at the collision site in Medak district near Hyderabad on Thursday. (AFP)
Hyderabad, July 24: Sixteen children, some only five years old, were killed when their school bus collided with a train at an unmanned crossing near Hyderabad with police probing divergent versions, including one that suggested the stand-in driver was speaking on a cellphone.
Other officials said the driver had taken a “short cut”, skipping two other routes in the vicinity that have manned crossings.
Such was the impact that the train dragged the bus, said to be carrying around 40 children, 50 metres before coming to a halt. Thirteen of the kids died on the spot and the others in hospitals. The driver and the cleaner were also killed in the 9am accident that left 19 kids injured, several of whom are said to be critical. Miraculously, three of the kids escaped virtually unhurt.
The spot at Masaipet village in Medak district of Telangana, 40km from Hyderabad, presented a gut-wrenching sight with blood splattered on the tracks, some bodies flung onto trees and others mutilated beyond recognition. Lunch boxes, nursery rhyme books, schoolbags and slates lay strewn at the site.
According to the unconfirmed accounts that suggested the driver was speaking on the cellphone, the students saw the approaching Nanded-Hyderabad passenger train and screamed at him to stop. The police said they were also probing another version, that a building near the tracks obstructed the driver’s view.
The children were heading to Kakatiya Techno School in Toopran, 5km from the spot, and hailed from villages in the area. The tragedy cast a pall on Bonalu, a local festival to be celebrated tomorrow and dedicated to a folk deity.
The Telangana government blamed the railways, saying they had ignored requests to man crossings, and suspended the registration of the private school for failing to ensure the children’s safety. Chief minister Chandrasekhar Rao announced Rs 5 lakh for the families of the children who died.
Medak acting district magistrate A. Sharat said the driver, Bhikshpati, had taken a “short cut”. “The driver took the unmanned gate route as the distance through the manned gates is a bit more. This proved fatal for the students.” A senior South Central Railway official said the village had three crossings, two manned and one unmanned, all within a distance of 1.5km.
Another officer said Bhikshpati was hired temporarily as the regular school driver was on leave, appearing to suggest he may not have been familiar with the safer routes.
But Telangana home minister Nayani Narasimha Reddy held the railways responsible. “The villagers have been requesting the railways for a manned crossing. Several memorandums were given but nothing was done,” Reddy said after visiting a hospital where some of the injured children were being treated. Later, South Central Railway general manager P.K. Srivatsava promised a new gate with a watchman within a week.
The police and rescue teams had a tough time extricating the bodies as parents, protesters and leaders, including YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy, trooped to the spot, as did thousands from nearby villages. At one point, the cops had to wield batons on some protesters, including several activists of the ABVP, the RSS’s student wing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee expressed grief at the tragedy.