I could not sleep on Friday night. Every time I closed my eyes, the ghastly stampede — the lifeless bodies and the heart-wrenching wails of family members – played out before me. These images will come back to me every time I will pass Elphinstone Road station.
I have covered disasters before in my short reporting career of four years but have never seen so much anger among people. And rightly so.
The BMC-run KEM Hospital, where I spent the day, was scrambling to handle the large number of casualties. Over 61 people were rushed in less than two hours after the stampede broke out. Twenty-two of these were declared dead. A few among those who were brought alive but gasping for breath passed away within minutes of hospitalisation.
Amid all this, the operations at the hospital were hampered by a steady stream of politicians trickling in at the casualty ward and diverting the attention of hospital staff onto themselves. Precious time meant for the care of patients was lost to several such visits through the day.
In a situation of heavy casualty, the hospital follows the triage method. The dead are marked ‘black’ and handled in the end. Those most critical and in want of immediate medical attention are marked ‘red’. Those with grievous but not life-threatening injuries are marked ‘yellow’ and attended after the ‘red’ ones are taken care of. Those with minor injuries are marked green.
The last few bodies trickled in the hospital by 11.30 am. Relatives of the victims began reaching by noon. In a separate building, on the ground floor, a help desk showed pictures on a computer screen of those dead. A red marker was used to number them on their foreheads — 1,2,3… till 22. The forensic department claimed that such a method helped them in quick identification. Within three hours, 1 9 bodies were identified.
In another adjoining building, at ward 20A, injured patients lay waiting for resident doctors to attend to them. I could see them running around. “The senior doctors are involved in decision making,” KEM Dean Dr Avinash Supe told me.
Post-1pm, I spotted Rajesh Verma, an eyewitness to the stampede, outside the casualty ward. “They won’t let me in. Some politician is there,” he said angrily. His friend, Anuj Kumar, he said, was inside, “alone, scared and shaken”.
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray along with MP Arvind Sawant and health minister Deepak Sawant was inside the emergency ward then. The dean stood in attendance briefing them.
As soon as they left, nurses and residents rushed back to their work. Until the three politicians were around, they waited patiently by the side to allow them to pass.
As the politicians and their entourage went around, I could see some patients vomiting blood, some falling unconscious. Some patients with fractures were in need of immediate X-ray. Until afternoon, at least four had become critical with head and chest injuries. “This is the most critical time. We have to see as many patients as possible,” a third-year resident doctor from surgery department told me.
In the meantime, relatives were struggling to enter the hospital from different gates. The main entrance to the emergency ward was shut barring for the VIPs. At least four members of 22-year-old Hiloni Dedhia, one of the victims, had split and were attempting to enter the hospital through different gates. “They are not allowing me inside. My other relative managed to get through but it is so crowded, we cannot understand anything,” Bharti Arya, her aunt, said.
In no less than 30 minutes, Guardian minister Subhash Desai was at the casualty ward. And relatives were asked to wait outside the ward again. I saw assistant medical officer Pravin Bangar patiently explaining the situation to the minister.
I waited outside with Bharti Arya for 20 minutes. We went and checked the pictures of the dead on a computer screen. She could not identify Hiloni. She told me she’ll wait outside ward 20A until they let her in. “Is she in, you think?” she kept asking. The guard could only say “Ma’am wait for some time and we’ll let you in”. Even ward boys who were hurrying with stretchers to bring in new patients or shift them between wards were halted every time a politician arrived.
I went to the mortuary to meet families of the deceased. Half an hour later, I returned to the casualty ward and found MP Arvind Sawant there again. Party workers were going to each bed, coaxing patients and families to furnish details and give addresses.
The dean had by then returned to his office where former MP Milind Deora sat along with several politicians. In some time, former CM Prithviraj Chauhan came. AMO Bangar again went on a round with him. Then came railway minister Piyush Goyal and shortly afterwards medical education minister Girish Mahajan.
Several patients stood mute but angry at the ministers’ visits and the preference they were given over relatives.”We have to keep everyone happy,” a doctor said.
The casualty ward’s corridor leads to a grilled gate exit. Several family members stood outside requesting a guard to enter.“This gate will remain closed. Come from another gate,” he said. “I have been given instructions to keep this gate closed,” he told me.