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Ramesh Velraj said the first thing he did was to “cry a lot” when he scrambled out of the A2 Coach of the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express, one of the trains which derailed in Odisha’s Balasore, killing at least 288 people and injuring hundreds.
Velraj thanked God as he spoke to The Quint, on 3 June, a day after the accident. “The train had crossed the Balasore station and moved a bit. I was awake. I felt a heavy jerk and fell from my berth. Many others in the coach also fell to the ground,” Velraj remembered.
The passengers instinctively knew that something had gone terribly wrong when the train came to a grinding halt. An eyewitness to the massive accident, Velraj said it took a minute to gather himself. The 45-year-old said the passengers could see nothing as it was dark outside. It was 7 pm and the first accident had happened near a deserted patch.
As per the South Eastern Railways, the Coromandel Express rammed into a stationary freight train, derailing some coaches of both the trains. Then, Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express, another passenger train which was crossing by in another lane, collided with the derailed coaches of the Coromandel Express. Some coaches of the third train too derailed.
Just as the passengers of Coromandel Express felt the jerk of the collision and derailment, those in Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express too felt the impact. R Radhakrishan, who serves in the country’s paramilitary wing, told The Quint, “I was in the top berth and felt a light jerk at first. Then a massive jerk, which made my bones shake, was felt. I immediately realised that the train had derailed. It couldn’t have been anything else.”
Electric Wires Everywhere and Cries from a Distance
Meanwhile, Velraj and others who were stuck in the less affected coaches were in a hurry to get off the Coromandel Express. “We opened the door and saw in the dim light that electric wires were dangling everywhere. We were worried that we would be electrocuted if we try to get out,” the survivor said.
Then someone who had the presence of mind reasoned that if the wires were still live the train would have turned into a electric chamber. “We gathered courage slowly and got out into the dark surroundings,” Velraj said.
The climb down was steep as there was no platform to get on to. They did not land on a flat surface as they alighted. “We slipped into a gorge below and somehow got out of it. Or it felt that way – that we were climbing out of a gorge.”
What the surviving passengers saw when they finally found a foothold was heartbreaking. “I saw bodies everywhere. There were those who were motionless and then there were those who were injured and crying in pain. I started weeping uncontrollably at the sight of this,” Velraj said.
The Narrow Escape and an Attempted Rescue
Radhakrishan was travelling along with his family members – wife, a woman relative, and a girl child – and other paramilitary servicemen. “We secured the women and children first and got out of the train. The last few compartments were intact and we were relieved,” he said. The relief was short-lived as the trained armed personnel, who were returning to Chennai from Howrah for their annual vacation, saw the mangled, derailed coaches ahead.
“I had a torch with me and the others used mobile phone torches to find our way to the derailed coaches. We found people trapped, calling out for help,” Radhakrishan, who is from Theni in Tamil Nadu, said.
Unlike those who were travelling with their families – women, elderly and children included – Velraj was travelling alone to Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli from Jharkhand. He had boarded the train from Shalimar in West Bengal’s Kolkata. Velraj’s family – wife and two children – were planning to travel with him on the fatal day, but had advanced their travel to 25 May because his son had to enroll for his higher studies in a Chennai college. “I was alone. But there were many families in the coach and the train who were scared out of their wits,” he rued. In addition, there were the elderly and the children who needed assistance.
The Villagers Who Helped
When the shocked passengers tried to help those who were injured and trapped in the derailed coaches, they found local residents already making brave rescue efforts. Alerted by the loud sound of the crash, many locals had rushed to the spot even before the state police arrived, Velraj said.
“The locals brought private vehicles to shift people to hospitals and healthcare centres.” Radhakrishan said that as the accident happened near a railway crossing, there were onlookers who came running to the spot for help. “Two of those who were waiting at the crossing were also injured by the debris which went flying from the coaches,” Radhakrishan told The Quint.
Currently, hundreds of injured are taking treatment at government district hospitals and private hospitals in Balasore and elsewhere.
The police brought in ambulances. District government officials too came to the spot and found a teeming crowd of local residents attempting rescue. The fire services were brought in shortly after.
As those who were unscathed thanked their stars, Radhakrishan said his training in the paramilitary did change the fate of the less fortunate ones. “My colleagues and I pulled out people from the derailed coaches. They were immediately shifted to nearby hospitals,” he said. Anyone with even a shard of humanity could have done any of the heroic rescues, he added, refusing to take credit.
“The scene was such that no one could stand around doing nothing. The immediate instinct of all onlookers and survivors was to help as much as possible.”
Different states including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, from where many of the passengers hailed, have sent their high-level teams to help the return of the survivors and the bodies of the deceased. Velraj and Radhakrishan and his family did not avail the state’s help. “We could manage on our own. There are others who need help and let all the help they need reach them,” Radhakrishan said.