Overpass In Kolkata, India, Falls On Traffic — Rescuers Dig For Survivors With Bare Hands [Update]

Update: The Washington Post reports that the death toll as risen to 21 people. A top official with the company building the overpass, K.P. Rao, said that the construction work is 70 percent done and the project hadn’t experienced other “mishaps.” They’ll be investigating to determine if the cause of the collapse was a “technical or quality issue.”

We completed nearly 70 percent of the construction work without any mishap,” said K.P Rao, a top official of IVRCL Infrastructure company, which was building the overpass. “We have to go into the details to find out whether the collapse was due to any technical or quality issue.”

Midday Thursday, a deafening crash sounded across the bustling Indian city of Kolkata. Witnesses described a sound like a bomb that shook surrounding buildings.

An overpass under construction had collapsed onto traffic underneath, burying cars, pedestrians, and rickshaws traveling underneath in metal and cement.

“The area was very, very crowded. Motorized rickshaws, taxis… there was a lot of traffic,” recalled one witness, according to CBS News.

“We heard a loud rumble and then saw a lot of dust in the sky,” added another.

“It was a powerful collapse, sent shivers down my spine. People here are very scared,” another eyewitness told India Today.

So far, at least 14 people are believed dead, but the death toll will likely rise, NBC News reported. Up to 150 more people are probably trapped beneath the collapsed underpass, and more than 70 survivors have been taken to hospitals in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta.

“Monumental tragedy. Rescue ops on. Many feared dead,” tweeted political spokesman Derek O’Brien.

Footage emerging from the scene of the overpass collapse are grisly — a bloody hand reaching out from under a girder, bloody legs jutting from under slabs, the New York Times reported.

There were also scenes of heroism: people handing bottles of water to the pinned survivors. People in Kolkata also descended on the scene to rescue anyone trapped in the overpass debris, including ordinary local residents who used their bare hands to move debris.

“Most were bleeding profusely. The problem is that nobody is able to drive an ambulance to the spot,” noted Akhilesh Chaturvedi, a senior police officer.

Army troops and personnel from the National Disaster Response Force also arrived to remove people from vehicles crushed under concrete blocks and metal. Cranes and rescue equipment littered the site to clear debris. Others used gas cutters to break open slabs. A concrete slab that trapped numerous victims, including the passengers of a minibus, was also removed.

The overpass was more than 300 feet long, according to Kolkata’s mayor, Sovan Chatterjee. It collapsed in the Bara Bazaar residential and shopping area in the central part of Kolkata, slamming onto taxis, cars, buses, rickshaws, and pedestrians. The neighborhood, named Ganesh Talkies after an old movie theater, is crowded and cramped; it’s considered one of the most congested areas of Kolkata.

The overpass is 1.2 miles long and has been under construction since 2008 or 2009. A resident named Ramesh Kejriwal said concrete had been laid on that part of the bridge just the night before.

“I am lucky as I was planning to go downstairs to have juice. When I was thinking about it, I saw that the bridge had collapsed.”

Construction has been plagued with delays over the years. When the contract to build the overpass was signed around 2008, it was believed the project would take two years. It has missed several deadlines and politicians in Kolkata, which is the capital of West Bengal state, have argued over its adherence to building regulations.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee committed to finishing the overpass by February this year, which engineers said was unrealistic. Now, her political opponents are blaming her administration for the disaster.

“This is a very serious example of corruption,” said Kailash Vijayvargiya, a general secretary of an opposition party. “The chief minister is directly responsible for the Kolkata accident, and charges of murder must be filed against the chief minister.”

The editor of India Today, TS Sudhir, said the company building the overpass has called the incident an “act of God.”

Collapses like the one Thursday are a common sight in India, where builders don’t enforce regulations and use substandard materials.

[Photo by STR/AP]

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