A minibus carrying schoolchildren suddenly caught fire on Harris Bridge at Dapodi between 1.30 and 2 pm Monday and was completely burned down in no time, said the police. The children on board, however, miraculously escaped as the fire engulfed the minibus seconds after they had deboarded it. The number of children could not be known, as the driver remained untraceable till late evening, the police added. “The minibus was apparently heading towards Khadki from Pimpri-Chinchwad. When it reached the jammed Harris Bridge at Dapodi, the driver noticed fire in the front. As there was no way he could get water on the bridge, he tried to frantically sprinkle water from his bottle,” said an eyewitness. Meanwhile, added another eyewitness, children inside the vehicle were shouting for help. Baba Mali, a labourer working on the bridge along with others, rushed to the vehicle and asked the driver to first get the children out of the minibus.
The driver then opened the door, which was jammed, and let the children out, said Mali. The children, he added, frantically huddled at a distance from the minibus and, in no time, the vehicle was reduced to a black metal frame. “At little here or there would have certainly proved disastrous for the children,” said Mahendra Yerello, a two-wheeler rider who rushed to the spot from other side of the bridge. “The driver was trying to use the water bottle he had to douse the fire when the fire was in its initial stage. However, the fire spread quickly. I think in less than five minutes after he got the children out of the van, it was all over… the van was burned down,” he added. Meanwhile, eyewitnesses gave different versions of the number of children on board the minibus. While one said there were 10-15 schoolchildren, Mali said he saw the driver taking away five-six children on the other side of the bridge. Baban Vanjare, an expert in vehicle repairs, said, “When a vehicle catches fire, the wires get snapped and the entire system comes to a halt. Due to this the door got locked.”
Pointing out that old wires tend to get burned in extreme hot conditions, Vanjare added, “It needs to be checked whether the minibus was in a good condition.” Late in the evening, Inspector Suhas Bhosale with Khadki police station said, “We have no clue as to the number of children in the minibus, as the driver or owner of the minibus have still not appeared before us…We have taken the minibus to the local police chowky and are awaiting for the driver’s version to know what exactly had happened.” We have no clue about which school the children belonged too either, he added. Pointing out that even the number plate of the vehicle was ruined in the fire, Bhosale said, “We could not even contact the RTO to know the details about the minibus…”
Jayant Kariya, a parent from Phugewadi, said the schools in Pimpri-Chinchwad have been conducting exams in the afternoon when it is too hot. “School vans do not have ACs. They are old and seem to be rarely serviced. The children are called for exam in the afternoon session, when it is absolutely difficult, even for adults, to go out on the road,” he added. Kariya said he, along with some other parents, had complained about this to a local school, which, he added, did not pay heed. “Likewise, it seems no school or officials are concerned about the safety of children,” he said.