“We were just waiting for the crowd to thin or I too would have been on that bridge,” says Rajendra Pradhan, a resident of Bijanbari in Darjeeling district, the site where a wooden bridge collapsed under the weight of the crowds that had gathered on Saturday evening.
The five-day cultural festival organised by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) at Bijanbari had been well-attended, but hordes had gathered during the last two days. The GJM volunteers had controlled the crowds during the day, but by evening the numbers were unmanageable, says Mr. Pradhan, a businessman and president of the Bijanbari Merchants Association.
“The cultural function was over and GJM president Bimal Gurung had started his speech. My wife had returned home, just half-an-hour ago. My friends wanted to leave. But I told them that there were too many people at the time and it would be better to wait a little longer,” he told The Hindu over telephone from Bijanbari on Sunday.
“I could see about 200 people already on the bridge. The wooden suspension bridge, about 250 feet long, was swaying beneath them, with the Little Rangeet River about 60-70 feet below,” he says adding that he was only 200 meters away.
“Mr. Gurung was still speaking, when the bridge suddenly collapsed. Amid the shrieks and screams we could see that dozens of people had fallen into the water along with parts of the wooden structure. There were many women and children and some were trapped beneath the remnants of the bridge,” he says.
“The current of the Little Rangeet is strong and few can resist being dragged away by it. Darkness had descended and there was panic all around. What made matters worse was that an electrical wire had also fallen into the waters. So, along with the force of the river, the people also had to be wary of the electrical current,” he adds.
“We are lucky to have escaped. My 88-year-old father was right there at the function; my wife had just returned home. I too may have left, but I did not want to push my way through the crowd,” Mr. Pradhan says.
The bridge, reconstructed in 1970 after it had been washed away in the 1968 floods, was in a bad state of repair. A month ago, Mr. Gurung had admitted that it was in a poor condition and announced that a concrete structure would replace the creaking wooden one, he says.
“The bridge connects Bijanbari Bazaar with the Chungthung tea gardens and the Marybong and Linga tea gardens further away. There is a need to provide a temporary structure immediately as those areas have been cut off,” he adds.