Around 1 am Wednesday, Kirat Singh’s phone rang. His son, 22-year-old Dharmendra, was on the line, weeping, frantic: “Papa, hum log gaye. Ab hum nahin milne wale (Papa, we are gone. We won’t meet again)”. The general coach of the Mumbai-bound Janata Express was slipping into the waters of the swollen Machak and Dharmendra had perched himself on an upper berth.
His ordeal had just begun because over the next three hours, the young man watched 11 of his family — 14 had set out for the pilgrim town of Shirdi — drown as water poured into the coach. Since it was dark, he couldn’t see properly and could only hear their cries for help. One by one, the voices died.
The 11 of Kirat Singh’s family were among 29 who died when two trains — the Patna-Mumbai Janata Express and the Mumbai-Varanasi Kamayani Express — travelling in opposite directions, derailed within minutes of each other shortly before midnight near Harda in Madhya Pradesh.
Officials said heavy rainfall in the area had washed away the base of the tracks on a culvert, causing derailment of at least 18 coaches when most passengers were asleep. Scores were injured and officials said the toll could rise because some bodies could have been washed away.
As he waited outside the Harda district hospital where bodies were sent for autopsy, Dharmendra said the Janata Express screeched to halt minutes after crossing Bhirangi. Before they could realise, the coach, the first after the engine, tilted. “For a few minutes, we couldn’t make out anything. The lights went out and then the water came gushing in. Everyone started screaming and tried to get out. It was pitch dark, and there was water everywhere.”
He and 13 others of the family, from Gotegaon in Madhya Pradesh, had boarded the train at 7 pm Wednesday — the Janata Express left Shridham station two hours behind schedule. Kirat Singh, the family head, was inconsolable: “The train departed at 7 pm. I did not go because my wife and my mother were with them… They were headed to Shirdi… 14 left, only three returned… At 1 am, when Dharmendra called, he gave the phone to my wife. I spoke to her one last time.”
Others were fortunate. Harilal, a passenger who had boarded the Kamayani Express at Jalgaon, said: “I was in a general coach but my wife, who was a different coach, called me for dinner. My coach derailed. The one in which we were together derailed after we got out. On one side was the engine of the other train, on the other side there was water. It was pitch dark.’’
Residents of the area where the trains derailed were the first to come to the rescue. The first relief train could reach the spot about two hours after the incident. Rescue teams sent by the administration included divers and army personnel from Bhopal and Mhow.
Chief Secretary Anthony de Sa said the deaths were due to drowning. Fourteen bodies were found in one coach and several people, who tried to jump to safety, drowned in the waters.
The mishap site could be accessed only by rail because rivers were in spate and rescuers couldn’t travel by road. Rescue operations were hampered when it rained again Wednesday afternoon.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who visited the spot, announced Rs two lakh compensation for the kin of each dead and Rs 50,000 for the critically inured. The compensation will be in addition to the one provided by the Railways.