Amarinder visits injured; magisterial probe ordered

Grief and shock in Amritsar, rlys and civic officials distance themselves

Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh with Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu visit a victim of the train accident at Jodh Phatak, at Civil Hospital in Amritsar on Saturday. PTI photo

The railways was not informed about the Dussehra event along the tracks and the civic body did not give its permission either, officials from the two organisations said on Saturday, a day after 59 revellers were mowed down by a train while Ravana’s effigy went up in flames in a cacophonous burst of firecrackers.

Grief, shock and outrage swirled in the air as families, officials and others tried to piece together the sequence of events of festivities gone horribly wrong when a train from Jalandhar came hurtling down the tracks where scores of people were standing to get a better view of the spectacle.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who visited Joda Phatak, the site of the tragedy, and hospitals, announced a magisterial probe and said 59 people were killed and 57 injured.

Officials earlier said 61 people were killed at the event, barely 50 metres from the railway track.

Except for nine, most of the bodies have been identified, Singh told reporters. Most of those killed are migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

An FIR was lodged against unknown persons, officials said as locals asserted that effigy burning had been going on at the spot for at least 20 years.

The Amritsar Municipal Corporation maintained that no permission was given.

"Nobody was given the permission for organising the Dussehra event. Moreover, nobody had applied for the permission with the Amritsar Municipal Corporation," Commissioner Sonali Giri said here.

Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani, who visited the spot at midnight, said the railways was not informed about the event and the accident occurred at a stretch between the Amritsar and Manawala stations and not at a level crossing.

"At midsections, trains run at their assigned speed and people are not expected to be on the tracks. At midsections, there is no railway staff posted,” he said.

In his view, there could have been a bigger tragedy if the driver had applied emergency brakes.

For the crowds that gathered outside the hospitals and squatted on the tracks, it all was mere officialese and of scant comfort as they tried to come to terms with one of the worst tragedies of the kind.

By morning, the tracks at Joda Phatak had been cleared of the bodies and the body parts that were strewn after the accident.

Tensions ran high as police, which barricaded the area, tried chasing them away.

"Why did the government not ensure proper security arrangements? Why was such function was allowed to take place near railway tracks?" asked Sujit Singh, one of the protesters.

If angry slogans like “Congress government hai hai” were heard at the residential area of Joda Phatak, loud cries broke the silence outside the hospitals.

It was a night of unspeakable horrors, said Vijay Kumar, who lost his 18-year-old son Manish.

A WhatsApp photograph of a head had flashed on his phone screen at 3 am, confirming his worst fears - his son was one of those killed.

His younger son, Ashish, returned safely, said Kumar, but the frantic search for Manish ended with that 'ping' on his phone. He has since been roaming from hospital to hospital looking for the remains of his elder son.

A leg was found and one hand, but they are not Manish's.

"My son was wearing blue jeans. This one is not wearing blue jeans. I have lost my world," an inconsolable Kumar said outside the Guru Nanak Hospital where most of the injured were taken.

As people milled around the hospital compound, some stunned into silence by the enormity of the tragedy that felled their loved ones and others holding back tears, the injured were inside, grappling with their wounds and trying to remember the events leading to the horror.

Among them was Sapna, who was on a WhatsApp call with her husband to relay the 'Ravan Dahan' event live to him, when the accident took place.

The 30-year-old, who suffered head injuries, said she saw body parts scattered around the tracks and a severed head.

"When the effigy was set afire, people started moving away from the stage and towards the tracks," she said.

She said they could not hear the horn due to the sound of the bursting crackers.

Sapna lost her cousin and her one-year-old niece, who she said were not crushed by the train but in the stampede that ensued.

Jagunandan, a 40-year-old wage labourer from Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh, who has suffered injuries in the head and leg, said he was not standing near the tracks but was pushed as people started running away after the effigy was set afire.

Recounting the minutes before the disaster, most of the injured said they could not hear the horn of the approaching train. They said another train had passed moments earlier.

The sound of the firecrackers as the effigy came down and the speeding train led to the commotion, triggering a stampede like situation, they said.

The aftermath had its inevitable political ramifications.

Navjot Kaur Sidhu, former MLA and wife of Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, was chief guest of the event, reportedly organised by Saurabh Madan, husband of Congress Councillor Vijay Madan.

Opposition parties, including the Akali Dal, BJP and AAP, demanded strict action against those who gave permission for holding the event.

They have also held the Congress-led Punjab government responsible for allowing the Dussehra celebrations near the railway track.

Train traffic in the area was hit with 37 trains being cancelled and 16 trains diverted.

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Amarinder visits injured; magisterial probe ordered

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