Smoke from funeral pyres and grief-stricken wailing — Amritsar’s Shivpuri Durgiana Cremation ground had never seen something like this before, according to those who manage it. The day after a train ran over and killed 59 people at the Jaura Phatak railway crossing, tearful family members of 31 victims performed the last rites of the victims here.
“This is the first time that so many pyres are burning at this cremation ground at the same time,” said Dharmenda, the manager of the facility.
Gaurav Dogra stood quietly, his hands folded, his eyes on four pyres in a row. “That is my sister, her husband, and their two beautiful children. Our entire family has been finished. Our children only wanted to get some photos clicked with the effigy of Raavan. They said mamu, we will go and take pictures. That is all they wanted,” said Dogra, as he burst into tears.
Dogra lit the pyres of his sister Puja alias Amisha Dogra (38), her husband Aman Dogra (40), and the couple’s children Nakul (13), and Kashish (9).
“The bodies were mangled so badly that it was difficult to identify them last night. We could identify them only this morning,” Dogra said. His younger brother Rahul Dogra, who was the last to meet their sister, said, “I went to her home to wish the children a happy Dussehra. She told her husband to get some spring rolls and jalebi for me. I can still hear the children running around me, calling mamu, mamu… Our parents died some time ago. Now our sister and her family too, are gone. We have nothing left in this world now.”
Cremation ground manager Dharmendra said 12 workers, double the usual number on duty, had been helping the families with the cremations. “The temple trust has decided not to charge anything from families of the accident victims,” he said.
A total of 38 cremations were held in Amritsar Saturday. Five of those cremated were children between the ages of 3 and 13. Four bodies were transported to Uttar Pradesh as per the wishes of the next of kin. Doctors at the Civil Hospital and Guru Nanak Dev Hospital said all but one of the 59 bodies received since Friday evening had been identified.
Dr Hardeep Singh Ghai, Civil Surgeon, Amritsar, said all 39 bodies at the Civil Hospital had been identified, and two had been claimed without autopsies. At Guru Nanak Dev Hospital, 19 of 20 bodies were identified and handed over to families after autopsies.
Autopsies were conducted through the night at the Civil Hospital. Parents waited for the bodies of their children outside the autopsy room, as stretchers were wheeled in and out past the green curtains. Periodically, the grim silence was broken by the piercing wail of a mother receiving the body of her child.
“Usually, an autopsy is a daytime procedure. But in a crisis such as this, we can conduct autopsies at night too,” said Dr Sandeep Aggarwal, senior paediatrician at the Civil Hospital.
“Never before had I witnessed scenes like these. I declared four children dead and tried to save several others. Those who had trauma injuries due to the stampede could be saved, but we couldn’t save those who were hit by the train. Most of them had blunt injuries in the stomach, face, and skull. Each autopsy is taking approximately half an hour, and we will be on the job through the night,” Dr Aggarwal told The Sunday Express in the early hours of Saturday.
Holding open the door of the ambulance as the body of her three-year-old nephew Sarthak was lifted inside, Suman Devi said, “Dussehra will forever be a black festival for us here on.”
Sarthak and his six-year-old sister Kajal had gone with their 22-year-old uncle Pardeep to see Ravan Dahan at the Dhobi Ghat ground. Sarthak and Pardeep did not return.
“We were looking for a bride for Pardeep. When we reached the spot, my brother had already died but Sarthak was still breathing. We took him to three hospitals and finally came to the Civil Hospital, but he could not be saved,” Suman said.
Paramjit Kaur, whose son Sachin (16) was among those killed, said: “I pray no one’s child goes to watch Ravan Dahan as mine did, so that they never return.
“I do not even know with whom he went. He asked for Rs 10, and I told him I did not have any money. I am now regretting having denied him Rs 10. That was the last thing my child had asked from me. He left without saying anything. I called him around 7.30 pm. Someone else took the call and told me about the accident. When we reached the spot, we saw bodies scattered all over the tracks. We found his body in the hospital.”
Navjeet Singh, Sachin’s father, wanted to know why the event had to be held near the railway tracks, and who had given permission to the organisers.
“My son went to see this mela for the first time, and he will never come back. Is all the security in this country for VIPs alone? Why was such a risky place allowed to be the venue? There was fire (from the burning effigies), and there were trains. Why did no one foresee this?” he said.
Mentan Devi and her son Anil squatted outside the autopsy room. Devi’s husband Prasadi Mehto banged his head on the wall as the family waited for the body of their younger son Satish (10).
Mehto, a ragpicker, said Satish had gone to see the mela with his mother. She was found sitting numb with shock at the spot by rescue teams. Satish’s body was found later. “This train came like a Ravan and took away my son who had barely known life,” Mehto said.