Prakash Mallick, a trader in Odisha’s Bahanaga town, was shocked to hear a deafening sound on the evening of June 2. Before he could react, he saw people running in the direction of the railway track. He joined the runners.
As the dust that engulfed the area settled in the darkness, the first responders were left speechless at the sight of mangled train coaches lying scattered and the cries for help. “I had to literally walk on corpses to rescue those who were seriously injured,” said Prakash. The local residents were soon joined by hundreds of others from the town as well as personnel from the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and the National Disaster Response Force.
“When we reached the spot, it was an unbelievable sight with blood stains splashed all over the place,” said Jayaram Das, a resident of Soro. “It was difficult to choose whom to rescue. Passengers from inside the mangled coaches were waving for help.” The rescue operation was streamlined only after the ODRAF installed powerful lights at the crash site, he said.
While the bodies of the dead were kept at Bahanaga High School, which was converted into a makeshift mortuary, the injured were rushed to government hospitals in Soro, Balasore, Bhadrak and other nearby areas. The critically injured were later shifted to S.C.B. Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack, the AIIMS in Bhubaneswar, and other hospitals. Never before had more than 200 ambulances been mobilised and pressed into service at one location, signifying the magnitude of the disaster.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was at the State control room in Bhubaneswar and assigned separate responsibilities to about 10 senior bureaucrats and police officers. This made possible a synchronised response to the accident. As the hospitals in Balasore and neighbouring Bhadrak district were not equipped to handle the situation, the government summoned doctors and paramedical staff from nearby districts.
While the swift transport of injured passengers helped save many lives, there were also complaints that the dead and injured were not handled properly. It took three days to retrieve all the bodies from the mangled coaches for want of enough numbers of gas cutters and trained manpower to use them.
- While dead bodies were kept at Bahanaga High School, which was converted into a mortuary, the injured were rushed to government hospitals in Soro, Balasore, Bhadrak and other nearby areas.
- While the swift transport of injured passengers helped save many lives, there were also complaints that the dead and injured were not handled properly.
- It would have been better if they had an adequate number of body bags and refrigerated containers, a senior police officer said.
- It took three days to retrieve all the bodies from the mangled coaches for want of enough numbers of gas cutters and trained manpower to use them.
Reconstruction on the cards
The Odisha government announced it would demolish and reconstruct a portion of the Bahanaga High School that was used as a makeshift mortuary. Teachers, parents and students were opposed to continuing in the classrooms where bodies were kept. The demolition of the building began on June 10 in the presence of the school managing committee.
On June 5, senior officials from the Railways, including the Director General of Safety, and the CBI visited the accident spot to investigate the possibilities of sabotage or malfunction of technology. The CBI commenced its probe before the Commission of Railway Safety had finished its first round of hearings. The Coromandel Express was not scheduled to stop at the station. That evening, the station master and a pointsman were on duty, said a senior Railways official, who was present at the accident site. Nearly 50 officials, including the station master and the pointsman, face an inquiry and cannot resume their jobs until the probe is complete.
“It would have helped if an adequate number of body bags and refrigerated containers had been kept available for such contingencies, said a senior police officer.”
Opposition parties, barring the Biju Janata Dal, held a meeting in Bhubaneswar and questioned the CBI probe into the accident. They demanded that the matter be investigated by a Special Investigation Team under the supervision of the Supreme Court.
A senior police officer, who oversaw the initial rescue operation, admitted that they faced difficulties in handling so many bodies. It would have been better if they had an adequate number of body bags and refrigerated containers, he said.
The crisis is far from over as people from different States continue to line up at AIIMS and the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation to identify the bodies of their loved ones. While many bodies were handed over to family members at various gathering points, others were brought to Bhubaneswar and kept at the morgues of AIIMS and other hospitals. On June 6, all the bodies were shifted to AIIMS in Bhubaneswar, but distraught family members continued to throng Balasore’s Fakir Mohan Medical College and Hospital. They scanned the ‘wall of the dead’ in the hospital, which contained over a hundred blown up photographs. “That multiple families are staking claim to the same bodies has complicated the situation,” said AIIMS director Dr. Ashutosh Biswas. At least one body was stated to have been handed over to the wrong family.
As bodies started to decompose, it became difficult to spot birth marks and scars, and this added to the confusion. As a result of this, ex-gratia payments may elude the families of many victims. Until June 9, a total of 207 bodies were handed over to family members and relatives, while 81 were unclaimed. Samples were collected in 67 cases for DNA testing to verify the identity of the victims. Balasore District Magistrate Dattatraya Shinde ruled out mass cremation as an option for the unidentified and unclaimed bodies.
Prafulla Das is a Bhubaneswar-based freelance writer.