UNTIL 5.30 pm Friday, when his body was fished out, there was no witness to 26-year-old Santosh Wandal’s alleged suicide from Sanvordem footbridge in South Goa’s Curchorem. The police and local administration had to rely on a lone neighbour’s word, mentioning the colour of Wandal’s “security guard pants” seen from a distance.
The alleged suicide on Thursday led to the collapse of a 25-year-old rusted iron foot overbridge, and the death of two curious onlookers.
The Centre deployed the Navy and NDRF for the rescue operation in the crocodile-ridden Zuari river, exposing the state’s inadequate disaster management systems. Three agencies involved in the search said this was one of the “rarest search operations”, with no definite inputs nor estimates of the people missing.
On Thursday, an onlooker saw a figure walking in the middle of a concrete bridge and removing his “red shirt” from a distance, in what he thought was a suicide bid. Men started running towards the bridge while police were called. Half an hour after “he jumped”, the fire brigade was in the water below with their lone rescue tender. “We were still looking for the body of a boy. A man. No one had a description, but we kept looking around a radius of the jump,” said Nitin Raiker, Deputy Director, Fire and Emergency Services.
“I think I was just a metre from the rushing crowd. As soon as he jumped, I saw everyone rushing to the parallel bridge to have a look,” said Suleman Gori, one of the onlookers.
While the fire tenders were in the water looking for the body, the excited group of locals stood on the rusted bridge to watch the operation, said Prashal Dessai, sub-inspector at Curchorem police station, who spent six hours controlling an “emotionally charged” crowd.
“After five minutes of rowing our tender, we heard a loud crack, then an echo of voices, and then the final thud. It was all down in less than three seconds,” Raiker said.
While the main Portugese-era bridge — where Wandal is believed to have jumped from — is used for transport, the foot overbridge was built by the Goa government for pedestrians.
Gori, who eventually rescued three men, said the iron bridge cracked into half. One side was left unhinged and fell into the water. “Suddenly our search became a live rescue, with the only tender available used as support for those who were in the water. A few hung to the iron railing of the broken bridge,” said a fire officer.
In the water was Amar Sawardekar (20), who was hurriedly pulling out everyone he could. “I didn’t think. It became mechanical. I managed to rescue a few as I figured the current’s flow,” he said.
Manoj Raikar, the first among the few to be rescued, said that when he hit the water, he could feel the weight of other men on him till the cold chill numbed him.
The first body to be retrieved was of Belgaum resident Basavraj Malanwar (30), a truck driver. The police recorded a broken skull, most likely due to the impact of the iron weight of the bridge.
The navy’s diving team, which reached the spot later Thursday night, pulled out another body of Ajit Ekka (28) from Jharkhand. His aunt Mariam had stood crying for over five hours at the search site, convinced that he was no more.
At least 30 men were rescued by locals and fire tenders, and another few swam ashore. The task for security agencies was not so much rescue as “getting the correct headcount”.
South Goa MP Narendra Savaikar said the estimates kept changing. The police said the locals kept changing their statements. “Everyone ran out, no one knew who was next to him. They all fell in less than a few seconds,” said Dessai, who went to track Wandals’ relatives in the middle of the night. “His mother Indira said he was mentally disturbed and a recluse,” he added.
The channel was 9 metres deep, the currents changed every three hours, and a broken bridge stood in the middle of the water. The divers spent two hours waiting for the cranes to pull the weight and the cutters to clean the water corridor. “We helped in tying the bridge in the dark, and the cranes pulled the bridge. It was then that the first body sprang up, as it was entangled below. We were fighting darkness, and another team kept watch for crocodiles. It was a long night,” said a diver with the Indian Navy.
The NDRF team arrived at 3 pm and took over the search from the Navy.
Twenty-four hours into the hectic operations, with the entire state machinery at the helm, the only man missing at the spot was Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar.
By evening, a policy decision had been arrived at, with PWD Minister Sudin Dhavalikar saying that bridges in Goa built during the Portuguese era would be reviewed and safety ascertained. He even committed to bringing down “every abandoned” bridge in the state.
The government maintained that the present disaster could have been averted if people had not “rushed to the bridge, as they had crossed the safety barriers”.