The collapse of the nearly century old bridge in Raigad on Tuesday night unfolded like a heart pounding scene out of a disaster film. An employee of a chemical manufacturing firm at industrial complex in Mahad was heading home to Poladpur on his motorbike on the new bridge when the one next to him began to crumble before his eyes.
Even as the man, whose identity his employer declined to disclose, watched, two large buses and several cars sank into the raging Savitri river along with what remained of the bridge. “He began to rise even faster fearing that the other bridge too would collapse. When he reached the other side, he alerted locals that the bridge had fallen,” said S B Pathare, Vice President, Opera, Privi Organics Limited, MIDC, Mahad.
On the other side, Pathare said, his employee found a local man frantically waving to onrushing locals to avoid the broken bridge, but to no avail. “My man is very shaken by the events of last night,” he said.
The bridge, local authorities claim, had been inspected and passed fit to bear traffic only in May by the National Highways Authority of India, in spite of having been built in 1928. While the NHAI will probe the matter, local officials have blamed incessant rain over three days for the collapse.
Sushma Satpute, Sub Divisional Officer, Mahad, said the last few days had witnessed an abnormal flow of water from the catchment area in Mahabaleshwar. “There has been 400 mm of rainfall in Mahabaleshwar for the last two days and the flow of water has been abnormally large. At the same time, Mahad has also received 200 mm of rain daily. This (the collapse) would not have happened in a normal (rainfall) situation,” she said.
In the darkness of the night, the authorities were at a loss to conclusively arrive at the number of the vehicles lost.
Daybreak brought helicopters and a mass of locals on both sides of the river bank with motorists stopping on the road side to watch rescue boats battling the muddy water. Both parallel stretches of road span roughly 150 metres across the Savitri river, which originates in Mahabaleshwar.
On Wednesday, the chunks of bridge still attached to the road turned into risky viewing decks. Even after vehicular movement resumed freely on the other bridge still standing, half of its width was occupied by curious locals, the police, NDRF personnel and passing travellers. “This has become a disaster tourism spot,” said a local disaster management official.
All day long, conventional methods failed and, leaving search and rescue teams to improvise. A 300 kilogram magnet was strapped to cables to lowered slowly into the river by a crane not suited to bear its weight. “We have struck something metallic down there. We just don’t know what it is,” admitted Sanjay Patil, Additional Superintendent of Police, Raigad.
All of Mahad seemed to have chipped in to help during the first day’s operations. With the police stretched thin, roughly 100 volunteers of the Sant Nirankari Seva Dal offered to manage the surging crowd of onlookers. The Mahad Manufacturers Association, representing local industry sent food down to the NDRF, which could not abandon its posts on the Poladpur side river bank until operations were officially suspended for the day.
“We are all locals and trying to do our bit to help out the authorities during this tragedy. We will be back in the morning,” said Anil Sakpal, a volunteer with the Seva Dal.