The horror witnessed

Print edition : March 07, 1998

AT 3.30 p.m. on February 14, R.S. Puram area in Coimbatore wore a festive look. The largely residential area, where Bharatiya Janata Party president L.K. Advani was scheduled to address an election meeting, resounded with drumbeats and the clang of cymbals as supporters of the party sang and danced on the streets. The venue of the meeting, the intersection of Diwan Bahadur Road and Thiruvenkata Swamy Road (where Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had addressed an election meeting the previous week), was festooned with BJP flags and buntings. A huge crowd, including people from nearby towns, had gathered for what was to be Advani's only election meeting in the western region of Tamil Nadu.

Advani was scheduled to arrive by a special flight from Thiruvanantha-puram at 1.30 p.m. and address the meeting at 3.00 p.m. His flight was delayed, but on a Saturday afternoon, few among those who had gathered at the meeting venue minded the delay.

This correspondent, who had reached R.S. Puram barely minutes earlier, was at a restaurant when, at 3.45 p.m. he heard the blare of a siren. In the belief that Advani's convoy was on its way, this correspondent got set to leave. Just then a deafening blast was heard. Immediately afterwards, a fire engine sped through the narrow road.

No one knew what precisely had happened, but everyone in the restaurant and on the roads instinctively ran for cover. They jumped on to their vehicles - two-wheelers or cycles - and headed out of the area, sensing trouble.

Word soon spread that bombs had gone off on West Sambandam Road and Shunmugam Road, both within 100 metres of the dais from which Advani was to speak. Within minutes, wholesale panic gripped the city as bombs went off in 11 places in an area within a 12-km radius. People scrambled onto whatever mode of transport was available and headed for the safety of their homes. Even then, many were unaware of the gravity of the situation. Only later in the night, when they learnt that 13 bombs had gone off and at least 40 persons had been killed, was the enormity of the crime brought home to them.

Lalitha Ramaswamy, 55, of West Sambandam Road, the site of one of the blasts, recalled that she heard a thunderous noise; the glass panes in her house crumbled and she nearly collapsed. Emerging from her house minutes later, she saw blood-soaked persons being taken in vehicles, including handcarts. An auto driver, blood oozing from his body, crawled towards a neighbouring apartment complex, but died right outside the gate.

The bomb had been planted close to a popular roadside eatery run by two women on West Sambandam Road. One of the two women died on the spot, as did some of those who had gathered there.

Construction labourer Lakshmi, 26, recalled that she and her 18-month-old daughter Nitya had barely returned from a tea stall close to the eatery when the bomb went off. She was still shaken by the close call.

Kaushik, 27, said he was waiting on D.B. Road for Advani to arrive when he heard a distant blast, which he mistook for an explosion in an electricity transformer. But suddenly there was a rush of people screaming that a bomb had gone off. Even as he and his friend were preparing to return to his house on West Sambandam Road, they heard another blast there. After a mild scramble, they ran through East Lokamanya Street, where a car bomb was defused later. Had the car bomb exploded, it would have led to the loss of many more lives, Kaushik said.

Within minutes, the area near the meeting venue, which had been throbbing with excitement, was filled with the wails of people crying over their dead friends and the anxious voices of uninjured bystanders rushing the injured to hospital.

Similar scenes were witnessed in the other places as well. The choice of the sites for planting the bombs - a shopping mall opposite the main bus stand at Gandhipuram, the office of a private travel agency, the parking lot in the Coimbatore Junction railway station, inside the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital or a textile showroom on Big Bazaar Street - appeared to have been made with the intention of causing the maximum damage and loss of lives.

The explosion in the basement of Rajendra Textiles on Big Bazaar Street killed three showroom employees; a few customers suffered burn injuries. The showroom, packed with inflammable garments, was gutted; shop employees carried bucketsful of water to douse the fire as the fire engines did not turn up for over 90 minutes. A young couple and their daughter who had gone to a shopping mall near the Gandhipuram bus stand died in the blast there. The blast inside a private travel agency's premises hurled two of the people inside to their death several metres away; two others were crushed under the debris. A moped rider was thrown off his vehicle and died.

A bomb went off at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital, even as final-year nursing students who had been summoned to attend to the blast victims were entering the hospital. Varna, a final-year student, was killed on the spot.

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