It was between 7 and 7.10pm on June 2 that Odisha Chief Secretary Pradeep Jena received a call from Balasore district collector Dattatreya P Shinde. “Sir, one train has derailed and I am proceeding to the site,” Shinde said, responding in the negative when asked if he needed anything. However, realising that even if a goods train had derailed, ODRAF and fire services teams would be required, the chief secretary mobilised two of the district’s teams to reach the spot where the Coromandel Express had derailed after mistakenky entering a loop line and hitting a static goods train as well as the last three coaches of the Howrah Superfast Express.
Within the next minute or two, the chief secretary got a second call from the Balasore district collector — “Sir, I hear that it is a train accident”. The very next minute, he got a “sudden” call from the chief minister’s office informing of an accident. “I said, yes, I know about it and I have deployed ODRAF and fire services teams and once the collector reaches there, he would know what more is required. I am preparing at the state level to handle if there is any situation,” Jena responded as he called senior officers and switched on Odia news channels. “When we saw the first visuals around 7.15pm, we were very clear that there is a major disaster,” he told News18.
Sensing the gravity and scale of the tragedy, nine senior officers of the state government were rushed to Balasore within 45 minutes — among them were ACS Satyabrat Sahu, Industries Secretary Hemand Sharma, DG Fire Services Sudhanshu Sarangi, Transport Commissioner Amitabh Thakur, and DG GRP.
“Wherever you are, you first rush to the site. Don’t worry about your luggage, we will make arrangement. Officers in Puri and Cuttack, don’t enter Bhubaneswar, take the bypass and go” — these were the emergency instructions to the officers. Over the next four days, these nine officers formed the backbone of the rescue and rehabilitation operation in Balasore.
WHEN CM NAVEEN PATNAIK ASKED ABOUT PLAN
In the control room, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asked the chief secretary and other officers about their plan to deal with the disaster. Patnaik was clear — “Do whatever is required. Don’t worry about money, or limitations of budget schemes, programmes. Draw money from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for anything that cannot be managed out of the state’s programmes”.
In the meeting, the chief minister underlined the need to save lives, provide treatment to the injured, food to the stranded and compassionate handling of those hit by the tragedy. He reviewed the decisions and stood solidly behind his officers.
“That was a very major thinG… the chief minister virtually giving all the freedom. There is no limitation then which can affect your performance,” recalled Jena who had managed seven cyclones in the past three-and-a-half years in his previous capacity as Special Relief Commissioner and Managing Director, Odisha Disaster Management.
Patnaik’s emphasis on “zero casualty” in any tragedy is hard-wired into the state’s administrative machinery and while, in an accident, casualties may occur, officers worked with the mission of zero casualty. Along with Development Commissioner Anu Garg, there were another 8-10 senior officers in the control room at Bhubaneswar.
SAVING LIVES: “SURVIVORS PULLED OUT BY MIDNIGHT”
Odisha Health Secretary Shalini Pandit was on her toes, mobilising ambulances to the district, alerting hospitals near Balasore to be ready to receive patients, and speaking to medical colleges in Baripada and Cuttack to supplement doctors.
In three hours, she had mobilised over 250 ambulances, 50 doctors from SCB Medical College, 30-40 doctors from Baripada Medical College and a few doctors from Kendrapara and neighbouring Jajpur. Collectors of neighbouring Bhadrak and Jajpur were asked to “send as many ambulances as possible” to Ground Zero in Balasore.
When about 40 ambulances had reached Balasore, Shinde sent an SOS to the CS: “Number of ambulances may not be adequate”. Jena then got down to organising buses to fall back upon before more ambulances reached. He spoke to Transport Commissioner Amitabh Thakur who, in turn, spoke to the RTOs of four districts — Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur and Baripada to “send at least 40 buses”. “Within a span of two hours of the horrific triple train accident, 40 ambulances, 40 buses and 80 doctors had reached the district,” said Jena.
DG Fire Services Sudhanshu Sarangi was the first to reach from Bhubaneswar followed by ACS Satyabrat Sahu and Principal Secretary, Industries, Hemant Sharma. By then, 15 teams from the fire department and two ODRAF teams had already reached, with the first once reaching within 45 minutes and the number of rescue personnel swelling to 400 people by midnight.
The nine officers on the ground — Satyabrat Sahu SRC; Hemant Sharma, Principal Secretary, Industries; Balwant Singh, MD, Odisha Mining Corporation; Arvind Agarwal, Director, Women and Child Development; Bhupinder Singh Punia, MD of IDCO; Sudhanshu Sarangi; Dayal Gangwar, additional DG Railways; Amitabh Thakur; and Himanshu Kumar, Eastern Range IG, worked on the principle of ‘Incident Command System’ along with the Balasore district collector and SP
The officers demarcated responsibilities in the emergency situation such as who will be in charge of relief, who will receive the injured, and who will handle the bodies. The priority was clear — in the first stage, extract passengers who are still alive and rush them to hospitals, putting aside the dead bodies on the track for other teams to handle. For the first 45 minutes, it was primarily the local administration headed by Shinde, local SP and people of Bahanaga who handled the situation. The locals poured out in large numbers using homespun means they had to rescue people by breaking glasses of the compartment, ferrying the injured to the hospital, providing succor and donating blood.
“It was pitch dark,” recollected Sarangi. “The first task was to light up the entire area. We installed 53 light towers and generators providing light so that the rescue operations could take place. The second task was to evacuate the injured. Actually, the evacuation of the injured started straightaway with the local public and authorities working on it. Our strength kept increasing. With new teams arriving, we started contributing to it.”
In fact, the fire station in Bahanaga received the first call at around 7pm and teams were immediately mobilised from Soro. “We mobilised about 24 units of fire and emergency departments consisting of 250 people from the neighbouring district and also from the state strike force in Bhubaneswar because that unit has a lot of gadgets which we require for work,” said Sarangi. Jena added: “By 12am, we had pulled out almost all the survivors. Minus two bogeys, we had entered all the bogeys in less than four hours using plasma and gas cutters and pulled out all the survivors by midnight.”
As the NDRF reached the spot, ODRAF and fire teams were given the responsibility of taking care of the survivors while NDRF was given the charge of the bodies. The rationale behind this was that the state’s own forces knew the language while the NDRF did not. The Railway Protection Force was asked to control the crowd since it did not have the specialised equipment neded to pry open the compartments.
“Fire Services have been notified as multi-hazard crisis centre. All of them have lights, they have cutters and equipments so if you have some disaster or accident, these fire stations and fire and emergency personnel immediately respond and provide succor to victims. That is the way it has been designed. It is called the fire and emergency department. We are notified as the first responder and we are looking at self reliance,” said DG Fire Services Bansal.
The survivors — approximately 1,200 — were sent to hospitals in Soro, Balasore, Basudevpur, Bhadrak, PHC at Bahanaga and Jajpur, with the more critical ones referred to the district’s hospital and medical college, and to the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack. While ambulances were used for the serious patients, buses were used for those with minor injuries.
Noting that some critical patients were taken immediately to blood transfusion centres or operation tables, Jena explained that it was because of the routine drills during cyclones and Covid-19 years as the cyclone amidst the pandemic enabled the hospitals to be ready within one-and-a-half hours which is the time it took for the first lot of injured to arrive.
“It is a routine drill we do. There was a cyclone during Covid-19 last year and since then, we had practiced,” the Odisha CS said. “We pulled out 1,200-odd people and sent them to hospitals for treatment. They were pulled out of the bogeys in the quickest possible manner and sent to hospitals. Had there been delay in bringing them out, maybe some more casualties would have occurred.”
SECOND STAGE: SPLICING OPEN THE BOGEYS FOR SURVIVORS
In the Bahanaga Bazaar train accident, nine bogeys of the Coromandel Express had gone off the tracks following derailment. The second stage of the rescue operation mounted by the Odisha government involved splicing open these bogeys that had turned turtle and looking for trapped survivors.
Explaining that “quite a few were trapped”, Sarangi said: “Somebody was lying unconscious or somebody was lying with an iron beam on their head and unable to move. Then we had to cut the iron beam and release him, and move him out. So that was the second stage of the operation which ended at about 2am when we were sure that we had covered the entire area. The ODRAF and the Fire Services teams used plasma cutters, hydraulic cutters to pry open these bogeys.”
Sarangi pointed out: “What I feel is that the long-term investment that the state government made in the past 20 years somehow created the capacity to handle this kind of a major disaster. We could install 53 lights, we could find 12 hydraulic cutters. We were not overwhelmed. We did not wait either for NDRF or Army to come and do it. We had completed the initial work that is moving the injured to the hospital and searching for survivors. Those two stages had been completed by the state’s forces because of the kind of capacity that the state government has created in these organisations.”
FINAL STAGE: RECOVERING & PRESERVING BODIES
A few hours after the accident, Industries Secretary Hemant Sharma flagged the urgent need for a temporary mortuary and MD Bhupinder Punia was put in charge. When it came to recovering bodies, the biggest challenge was retrieving those which were trapped underneath the compartments.
This exercise was done in phases, with three compartments lifted on the morning of June 3, two in the evening and another two the next morning on June 4. The NDRF team consisting of 100 personnel joined the ODRAF and Fire Services team. “The NDRF joined the 370 personnel from Odisha. Army jawans had reached by 9am on the 3rd. By 11am, personnel from the Navy had joined there — all these basically took the bodies to the morgue,” said Jena.
The rescue operations, however, hit a roadblock when it came to the last two bogeys — one precariously perched over the other. The ODRAF, NDRF and fire teams discussed that they could not venture going into the bogeys because they were unstable. “That is when our team spoke to the Chairman of the Railways Board and said sir, unless you bring your crane, it will not be possible for us to operate,” said Jena. He agreed to give it a try but was not sure whether the action would be feasible.
“Next day, you know, was the day of VIP visits so the crane movement was also very carefully designed. Finally around 4.35pm, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi left at 4.30pm, we said now we will take the risk and pull those two bogeys. One bogey was above the other bogey. We recovered about 27 bodies. Pulling out those 27 bodies was the most difficult task,” recalled the Odisha Chief Secretary.
“In the first six hours, the injured had been removed and the survivors rescued. Then, in the next three-four hours, all the bodies had been taken out minus the ones underneath the compartments. That took a little time because the compartments were very heavy. We required heavy cranes to lift them or remove them,” said Sarangi.
PATNAIK TO PM MODI: “I NEED ONE HELP”
Preserving the bodies in scorching summer with temperature soaring to 39 and 40 degrees was another huge challenge that was proving to be nearly insurmountable. Tonnes of ice in the temporary mortuary too did not help in arresting the decay of the bodies.
When PM Modi reached the site of the tragedy late afternoon on June 3, he asked the officers present on the ground about the problems they were facing. It was then that Patnaik, who had already been at the accident site the same morning, communicated to PM Modi that the state needs support in preserving the bodies.
From Bahanaga, the prime minister spoke to the Union Health Minister and Cabinet Secretary. After that, a flurry of calls followed from the Cabinet Secretary, the Health Secretary and even the Union Home Secretary and it was decided to shift the bodies to AIIMS, which until then could accommodate just 12 bodies. The Centre’s offer of using a helicopter which was in Chandipur to transport the bodies to Bhubaneswar was discussed and abandoned. Similarly, the option of using a train sent specially for this purpose was also abandoned. Both these options meant two sets of loading and unloading.
Finally, 95 ambulances were arranged for 180 bodies, a green corridor was created with pilot protection, and the ambulances — most carrying two bodies each — were transported from temporary mortuaries and hospitals in Balasore to AIIMS, Bhubaneswar. The central government sent 17 professionals along with 1,000 litres of formaldehyde by a special Air Force plane to create and preserve the special 150-bed mortuary in AIIMS.
“Preparing the 150-bed mortuary in the All India Institute of Medical Science, Bhubaneswar, could not have been done without the help of the Centre. We always work together, not just in this particular episode. There is seamless synergy between the government of India and us in all disasters. Many other states may have other opinions but in our case we know we don’t have to write a letter to get support; it is done over telephone and immediately support will come. So that is the degree of convergence we have on disaster situations,” said Jena.
THE WORK CONTINUES
Every spoke in the wheel of the Naveen Patnaik government worked resolutely and quietly to salvage every living and dead in the aftermath of the ghastly triple train tragedy, taking decisions – like the one to release the pictures of the dead — stoically.
From announcing ex-gratia for the next of kin of the dead and the injured to organising free transportation for stranded passengers, free transportation of the bodies after identification, easing the process of obtaining death certificates, setting up help desks and providing food to the stranded — it rose to meet the challenges thrown by India’s worst train disaster in recent times.
Perhaps, it had to be that way; after all, it is the ordinary people in Bahanaga and Balasore who staked their meager resources, energy and time in reaching out to those caught in the vortex of the tragedy. However, it was not always this way.
The 1999 Supercyclone claimed a staggering 10,000 lives and wiped out the incumbent Congress government for the next 24 years, bringing in Naveen Patnaik for the first time. Minimising loss of lives in a disaster is one of the legacies of the firm, soft-spoken and politically astute Patnaik.
Despite his best efforts, however, there was some chaos and confusion on the ground, given the humongous scale of the tragedy involving people of three states.
In 1999, Jena and Sarangi were collector and SP of Cuttack and Berhampore respectively, much like the Balasore collector Shinde, the new hero of Odisha. As the country comes to terms with the tragedy, the death toll in the ghastly accident has risen to 288 while 205 bodies have been identified and handed over to the next of kin and 83 bodies are yet to be identified.