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August 3, 1999
Human error blamed for Gaisal train crash
Arup Chanda in Gaisal (North Dinajpur)
To err may be human. But Monday's error by two railway employees has proved to be way too expensive.
A visit to the accident spot at Gaisal, 100km from Siliguri, north Bengal's premier town, this morning indicated that the toll might even cross 1,000.
The reason for this fear is that though there were only 72 seats in each of the seven general compartments that were involved in the accident, all of them were crowded way beyond capacity. Moreover, there were many ticketless travellers who will not be included in the official count.
According to Chandrasekhar, a shopkeeper from Golaghat, Assam, "I was returning home with my two small daughters. Our compartment had more than 400 passengers. I don't know how I fell out with my daughters and landed in this hospital with a head injury."
His daughters received only minor injuries and were admitted to Islampur Hospital in North Dinajpur district.
More than 24 hours after the accident took place, rescue work was not yet in full swing. Only some sweepers of the Islampur Municipal Council were engaged in extricating bodies from the wreckage of the Awadh-Assam Express and the Brahmaputra Mail.
While all 13 compartments involved in the crash had been smashed, three were mangled so badly that the bodies inside could not be removed, though the bodies of women and children could be seen clearly.
Though the official toll has been put at 400, it is rising by the hour as more bodies are extricated. Some of the injured also died in hospital. The stench at the site was unbearable as some of the bodies were burnt and had begun to decompose.
A huge crane was being used to shift the compartments that had piled on to one another as the two trains collided head-on.
Police cordoned off the entire area, but people were still pouring in from nearby villages to see the wreckage. The site was littered with crushed and damaged luggage. But few wallets or purses could be seen. Apparently, local people who had rushed to the spot soon after the mishap took place in the early hours of Monday made away with some of the belongings of the dead.
Among the dead are a large number of jawans of the Indian Army, Central Reserve Police Force and Border Security Force. Most of them have been identified as they carried identity cards.
The defence and paramilitary personnel who were injured are being taken care of by their organisations.
Said Jibon Gogoi, of the Corps of Engineers, "I was returning from my home in Jorhat [Assam] to rejoin my regiment in Gwalior. Suddenly I heard a deafening sound and thought it to be an explosion. I got hit on my head but jumped out of the compartment.
"It was very dark and there was total chaos. There was fire inside some compartments and passengers screamed as they burnt to death," he added.
Teams from the army, the Indian Air Force, BSF and CRPF have arrived to identify the dead personnel.
Said Squadron Leader M Joshi of the IAF medical team, "The local people did indulge in some looting, but after the police arrived it stopped. We are trying to help in the rescue operations, but these mangled compartments have to be cut down before the bodies can be brought out."
Most of the injured have lost their luggage and money and are now worried about returning home since few relatives have turned up.
Those injured were not at all impressed by the visit of Railway Minister Nitish Kumar to the hospitals in north Bengal and his assurance of financial help for the next of kin of the dead and injured.
Moaned Parsuram, who lost his son, "What will I do with the money now? Can Rs 5 lakh [500,000] bring my son back? How will I face my wife now?"
A huge crowd gathered in the afternoon as news spread that Trinamul Congress president Mamata Banerjee would be visiting the site and the injured.
Banerjee did arrive, but realising that the mood of the crowd was not too friendly did not get down from her vehicle. She merely peeped through the window and then sped away, saying she was going to the hospitals in Jalpaiguri and Siliguri where most of the injured have been admitted.
Though the railway authorities have admitted that the accident was the result of 'human error', an act of sabotage has not ruled out entirely as only 41 days ago there was a blast at New Jalpaiguri railway station in which many soldiers bound for Kargil were injured.
The commissioner of railway safety will arrive at Gaisal tomorrow. His report is expected to reveal the real cause of the accident.
Since 1995, there have been 35 major railway accidents in India, which have left more than 2,000 passengers killed and thousands more injured.
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