Fire and fear on Calcutta's Metro

Chaos underground and on surface after 5pm fire in a unit under train that helps draw electricity from the third rail

By TT Bureau in Calcutta
  • Published 28.12.18, 3:59 AM
  • Updated 28.12.18, 12:38 PM
  • 3 mins read
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A picture taken by a passenger, Chhandak Chatterjee of Jadavpur, shows the evacuation in progress in the tunnel leading to the Maidan Metro station.

Metro Railway passengers were forced to smash their way through windows and at least two suffered fractures after an air-conditioned coach caught fire between the Rabindra Sadan and Maidan stations on Thursday evening.

On an evening of unparalleled panic underground, passengers recounted how they saw “flames streaking past windows” while the train travelled for several seconds before screeching to a halt.

The next 20 minutes —with the train motionless in a dark tunnel, smoke filling several coaches and no announcements from officials — witnessed near-stampedes as panicky commuters jostled to reach the rear of their compartments.

The dependable subway system is no stranger to panic situations — there had been multiple instances of passengers having to be evacuated and several complaining of breathlessness — but Thursday’s episode stood out for several factors.

  • One, this is the first time passengers have suffered fractures. One person broke both his legs. Even when a Metro train got derailed in 2010, none had suffered serious injuries.
  • Two, rarely has there been an instance when passengers felt so terrified that they had to break the windowpanes and jump 10 feet below.
  • Three, the scale of the incident has been the biggest since air-conditioned coaches arrived in Calcutta. With the ventilation inside the train not functioning in the absence of power, many complained of breathlessness.
  • Four, Metro’s response system was found lacking, especially the inability to share information swiftly. Some passengers alleged the emergency numbers given in the coaches did not elicit response.
  • Five, evacuation should have started faster, felt many passengers. The train was stuck 40 metres from the Maidan station but the passengers said evacuation took long to start.

At least 44 people were taken to hospital — some on stretchers — and nine were admitted.

Metro services between Tollygunge and Central were stalled for two-and-a-half hours, adding to commuters’ misery. The entire Chowringhee Road was snarled. The full Metro services resumed around 7.30pm.

“The fire started in a unit under the train that helps draw electricity from the third rail,” said Jag Mohan, director-general of fire services.

Metro officials could not say why the particular “third-rail current collector” had caught fire — whether it was a short circuit, or whether the beam covering the device came loose and was dragged against the tracks, triggering sparks.

They said the fire had spread to the rubber blocks placed on the top and the bottom of the springs on the wheels, causing the thick smoke.

Shortly after the Dum Dum-bound train had left Rabindra Sadan around 5pm, the passengers heard a loud sound of “something bursting”, accompanied by the sight of tongues of flames intermittently shooting past the windows, front to back, as the train hurtled forward.

Metro officials said the fire had broken out in the undercarriage of the first coach, the one just behind the driver’s cabin. But passengers of at least the first three coaches described seeing the flames.

The undercarriage that caught fire. Many passengers were evacuated through the emergency doors at the front and the rear of the train. Several climbed down a ladder fitted to the door and walked on the tracks to reach the Maidan station, 40 metres from the front of the train and around 200 metres from the rear. Some could not use the ladder and had to be carried out through the door. Metro Rail officials said the evacuation had started at 5.22pm and the last passenger got down at 5.50pm on Thursday
The undercarriage that caught fire. Many passengers were evacuated through the emergency doors at the front and the rear of the train. Several climbed down a ladder fitted to the door and walked on the tracks to reach the Maidan station, 40 metres from the front of the train and around 200 metres from the rear. Some could not use the ladder and had to be carried out through the door. Metro Rail officials said the evacuation had started at 5.22pm and the last passenger got down at 5.50pm on Thursday The Telegraph picture

“As the train moved, the flames lunged towards the coaches behind,” said Bonani Goswami, who was inside the third coach. “Everyone feared the (front of the) train was on fire; we tried to run in the opposite direction. The train was crowded and there was hardly any space to move. It was complete mayhem.”

Once the train stopped, about 40 metres from the Maidan station platform, the flames vanished. But they reappeared as soon as the driver attempted to nudge the train closer to the platform, prompting him to give up.

“There was no announcement on what had happened and how to get out. Several people tried to call the helpline numbers displayed inside the coach, but the calls didn’t go through,” said Prabhas Gope, who was in the first compartment.

The lights too went off. “But thankfully, the emergency lights came on — else there could have been a stampede,” said Chhandak Chatterjee, a research scholar who was on the train.

But breathing was becoming increasingly difficult in the sealed coaches, some of them now smoke-filled, with the AC not working. Many said they feared death by suffocation.

Amid the confusion, “some passengers took out the fire extinguishers from under the seats to break the windows”, a commuter said.

Over 20 minutes later, the passengers were taken out through the driver’s and guard’s cabins and walked to the platform in a single file. Those with fractures had to be lifted from the tracks by rescue teams. Many passengers collapsed on the platform chairs, breathing heavily.

Thirty-five of the ill and injured Metro passengers were taken to SSKM Hospital and five to Calcutta Medical College and Hospital.

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