Bus sinks - Race and slush kill 20 passengers on VIP Road

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By Staff Reporter in Calcutta
  • Published 4.04.08
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Calcutta, April 4: Twenty people who had little option but to use Calcutta’s lawless public transport system drowned today when their bus chose to overtake an autorickshaw from the left on a VIP Road made slippery by rain.

As the 217B skirted the banks of the Lower Bagjola Canal at high speed, eyewitnesses said, it skidded on a pile of dredged mud that overnight rain had turned into slush and plunged into the water with 45-50 passengers.

The victims of Calcutta’s worst accident in recent memory included a nine-month-old baby and an 80-year-old, two schoolgirls, two other children below 10, and people returning home from work.

Police sources said the speed limit on the stretch, connecting the city to the airport, is 40km an hour but buses regularly do 55-60km.

“It was between 2.20pm and 2.25 pm. I saw two buses, a 217B and a 211, racing each other. Suddenly, the 217B swerved left to overtake an autorickshaw,” said Rumki Chatterjee, who was standing at the Kestopur crossing. “Then there was a huge splash.”

The bus teetered on the canal’s bank for a few seconds. By the time it hit the water, it had turned turtle, trapping the passengers.

“I was standing near the front door, waiting to get down at the Kestopur crossing. As soon as I realised the bus was hurtling towards the canal, I jumped off,” said Gora Roy, 42, one of the many injured, from his bed at Apex Nursing Home off VIP Road. “I’m lucky to have escaped with just a fracture.”

Rahim Mondol had boarded the bus from Babughat around 1.15pm with wife Asma, 45, daughter-in-law Marjina Bibi and grandchildren Neha, 8, Zahir, 2, and nine-month-old Hena. They were returning home after seeing a doctor. By 3pm, Asma, Neha and Hena were dead.

“I can’t believe what has happened — I have lost three members of my family,” Marjina’s father Manik Naskar sobbed outside the nursing home.

In the evening, North 24-Parganas police chief Supratim Sarkar said the death toll had reached 20. “Divers from the BSF’s disaster management group are checking whether more bodies are stuck in the mud,” Sarkar said.

The police, unsure what has happened to the driver, have sought the motor vehicles department’s help to identify the owner of the bus, which plied between Babughat in Calcutta and Narainpur in Rajarhat.

“A case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder will be registered against the driver,” said Soumen Mitra, deputy inspector-general (presidency range), amid allegations of inadequate policing against speeding on VIP Road.

Reckless bus drivers cause scores of deaths on Calcutta’s streets every year but almost always get away thanks to legal loopholes.

The government keeps promising to ban the owners from paying the drivers and conductors through the commission system — the main reason why buses race each other in a competition to pick up passengers. But it is unwilling to take on the unions and the transport lobby that enjoy politicians’ patronage.

The cause of the accident hasn’t officially been established yet but till tonight, no one was making the standard excuse of mechanical failure.

Today’s accident highlights how unprepared the administration is to tackle emergencies, eyewitnesses and survivors said. The first group of policemen arrived around 3pm, by when several bystanders had jumped into the water with shovels borrowed from neighbourhood homes to try and break open the bus’s windows.

The city police’s disaster management team arrived at 5.10pm, almost three hours after the accident.

More lives could have been saved had the police been quicker, said Gautam Das, a resident of Kaikhali who was sitting in a nearby tea stall. “I and a few others jumped in; we were able rescue a few,” the 22-year-old said.

The rescuers, mostly residents of the neighbourhood, swam to the bus and began smashing the windowpanes and slicing the aluminium sheets lining the windows to make an escape route for survivors.

“I somehow managed to stick my head out of the window and the rescuers pulled me out,” said Chandan Sinha Roy, who was returning home to Baguiati from Chandni Chowk.

“I am alive only because of the local people. But many of my co-passengers were not so lucky,” the middle-aged businessman said.

The bus had sunk almost completely within 10 minutes. It took the authorities more than an hour and a half to pull it out.

The first crane sent to the spot was defunct and the second took over an hour to arrive. In between, for some inexplicable reason, the administration sent fire tenders to the spot.

“We can never have prior information about an accident. So it takes time to arrange things and reach the spot. The police tried their best to rescue the passengers,” home secretary Ashoke Mohan Chakraborty said.

TRAGEDY OF THE SAVIOUR...

Marjina Bibi

Marjina Bibi: I was on the ladies’ seat with my elder daughter Neha, 8. The bus was speeding down VIP Road when it suddenly swerved and before we could realise what was happening, it overturned and plunged into the water.I clutched on to my daughter’s hand and tried to head for the driver’s cabin that was still above the water. I lost my grip on Neha’s wrist for a second, but regained it. I remember reaching the window before being hit on the head by an iron rod that was being used by rescuers to smash their way in. Before I lost consciousness I felt someone pulling me out of the bus and I thought I had managed to savemy daughter.But at the nursing home, I was told that mydaughter was dead. The hand I had been holding on to thinking it was my daughter’s, was actually that of some other girl, who is now safe.

...AND THE SAVED

Sunita Mirdha

Sunita Mirdha, 5: I was with my mother (Sandhya) on the bus. I had a fight with my mother before getting on to the bus because I wanted a candy. She made me stand next to the window while she stood some distance away to teach me a lesson.
When the bus fell into the water, I tried to call out to my mother, but I choked. Just then someone (Marjina Bibi) grabbed my hand and started pulling me towards the driver's cabin. I could finally breathe. I was pulled out of the bus, but I could not find my mother.
(Till late on Friday,Sandhya Mirdha could not be traced.)