THIRTEEN CHILDREN, aged between 8 and 11 years, were killed when a train rammed into their school-van at an unmanned railway crossing in Padraun Mudrai, about 35 km from Kushinagar, on Thursday morning.
Four children and the driver of the van are reported to be critical, and have been admitted to the BRD Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur. The van was carrying 17 children — all students of Divine Mission School in Dudahi — more than double its capacity of eight passengers.
The accident occurred around 7 am, when the children were on their way to school. When the Gorakhpur-bound passenger train (Train No. 55075) hit the van, it dragged the vehicle for a few metres, before throwing it off the track.
Dr A K Pandey, the doctor in charge of the Community Health Centre where the children were first taken, said most of them had suffered head injuries.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who visited the accident site, blamed the driver. “I spoke to the Rail Minister. Prima facie, it appears to be the driver’s fault. He was driving with his earphones on. There is some controversy regarding his age also,” he said, amid reports that the driver may have been underage.
As he faced protests from residents, Adityanath told them, “Yeh dukhad ghatna hai… narebazi bandh kar dein… nautanki bandh karo (This is a sad incident… stop raising slogans, stop this drama).” The BJP later claimed that he was addressing his supporters who were raising slogans in his favour.
The protesters squatted on the rail track and demanded that railway personnel should be posted at the unmanned crossing.
In a statement, Sanjay Yadav, Public Information Officer, North Eastern Railway, said the train hit the vehicle “at unmanned level crossing No 45, at about 7 am, between stations of Thawe and Kaptanganj section.” He said the ‘gate mitra’ tried to stop the vehicle, but the “driver didn’t stop”.
Meanwhile, following today’s accident, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal is learnt to have advanced the deadline for manning all unmanned crossings to September 12 this year. The original deadline was March 2020.
Among the children who died today were three siblings, Ravi (10), Tunnu (9) and Ragini (8), whose mother, Kiran Devi, is the gram pradhan of Mishrauli village. Having lost all her three children, Kiran Devi was inconsolable. Her husband, Amarjeet, and the rest of the family were all in a state of shock.
Shakila Khatoon, a resident of Padraun Mudrai village, also lost her two children, Kamran (10) and Farhan (8). “The younger one wanted to join the police force, and the elder one wanted to be a doctor… everything has come to an end,” said Khatoon. Her husband, Haider Ali, works as a driver in Saudi Arabia.
Like Kiran Devi and Shakila Khatoon, many villagers had opted to send their children to the private school, in the hope that they would get better education. But following the accident, it was found that Divine Mission School had not been recognised. The school was sealed on Thursday. Some parents said the school-van did not even have a numberplate.
The other children who died have been identified as Hari Om (8), sisters Tammana (10) and Sajida (11), Atiullah (8), Arshad (9), Anas (8), Muskan (7) and Miraj (8).
“The van was owned by the school manager. We thought that since they have to cross the road to reach school, the van would be a safer option than a cycle. We had complained about the driver and his habit of using earphones, but no action was taken,” said Amar Rai, father of Hari Om. He said he paid Rs 350 as school fee and Rs 350 for the van every month.
Residents of the area said that after a tractor was hit by a train at the unmanned crossing in January 2016, they had complained many times to railway officials. While there is a manned crossing about 4 km away, they said the unmanned crossing was a shorter route to the highway.
Meanwhile, the chief minister announced an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 2 lakh each for the families of the victims.
Based on the preliminary enquiry, the government suspended Hemant Rao, Basic Education Officer, Kushinagar; Shesh Bahadur, Block Education Officer; Assistant Regional Transport Officer (enforcement) Raj Kishore Trivedi; and transport department official Ranveer Singh Chauhan.
The chief minister has also ordered an FIR against the school manager and principal, K J Khan.