As he cleared the last few steps leading to the foot overbridge (FOB) at Elphinstone Road railway station, Nitesh Sawant cursed his luck: it was raining, and there were dozens of people crammed into the narrow bridge. Like them, he, too, had thought the rains were done for this year, and had stopped carrying the folding umbrella that had been his constant companion for the last three-odd months.
Within seconds, the 29-year-old Dombivli resident could feel the crush beginning to form, as passengers continued to climb the stairs from the platforms below. “There wasn’t an inch of room. I was close to the railing, and as the pressure increased, I was pushed very hard against the rods. Within minutes, the crowd became uncontrollable and everyone began falling on each other. The last I remember, several people fell on me.”
Mr. Sawant, who regained consciousness several hours later at the KEM Hospital, was among the lucky ones who survived on September 29 morning’s tragic stampede on the narrow FOB , which killed 22 commuters and injured 39, including an 11-year-old boy.
Survivors of the stampede are almost unanimous in blaming the unexpected rain. With little or no rainfall in the past week, and the city almost back to its normal humidity, most had stopped carrying umbrellas, and were understandably reluctant to step out from the shelter the FOB’s roof offered.
Unaware of the rain, passengers coming up from behind and rushing to board trains on other platforms tried to push their way through, adding to the crush and eventually leading to the stampede.
Fractures, respiratory distress
While two survivors, whose condition is said to be serious, are admitted to the hospital’s ICU, the rest are out of danger, but have suffered fractures and severe respiratory distress arising out of suffocation.
In pictures: Elphinstone Road railway station stampede
Avinash Supe, Dean, KEM Hospital, said the survivors are being monitored round-the-clock and specialists from various streams of medicine are attending to them. The bodies were numbered on the forehead by KEM staff for identification, and photographs of the victims began to make the rounds on social media, earning negative reactions from many people.
Dr. Supe said, “Some people may have found it insensitive and we apologise for this, but the need of the hour was to streamline the identification process in a mass disaster. Often, bodies are tagged or numbered on the cheeks in such tragedies.”
As soon as the news spread, blood donors rushed to KEM in large numbers, but only 58 could donate blood. The hospital said its blood bank had sufficient stock. “Over 300 donors called,” a staffer of the blood bank said. “They were told they’d be called in if needed. Most patients had suffered chest injuries and suffocation. The requirement for blood was only for certain negative blood groups, which we got from donors.”
Rajesh Dere, acting Head of Department (Forensics), KEM Hospital, said, “Most of the deceased had suffered from chest compression and haemorrhage due to injuries. A few may have suffered from suffocation or neurogenic shock due to reduced oxygen supply.”
Lives snuffed out
The flower market near the station is a huge draw during festivals, and Dussehra flower shoppers added to the office-goers. Among the deceased were Sujata Alva, 40, and Sumalata Shetty, 42. The Kanjurmarg residents who were on their way back after buying flowers, an annual ritual since many years for the women, who were also best friends.
Ganesh Shetty, a family friend, said, “They organise an elaborate pooja for Dussehra every year. This year, too, they had gone to the market to buy flowers in bulk. Both women were active among the Bunt community, and helped organise several events.”
Sarita Shetty, their friend, said they were always seen in each other’s company. Ms. Alva and Ms. Shetty are survived by their spouses and a daughter and two daughters respectively.
Chartered accountant Hiloni Dedhia, 24, who died in the stampede, had recently joined Axis Bank. Her uncle, Hemant Hariya, said, “They were a small and happy family. Her younger brother and parents are in shock. This is a result of negligence by the Railways and the government.”
Unlike most victims who rode a train to Elpinstone Road, Theresa Fernandes, 40, was a local resident. She took the train to work to travel just one stop away because it was convenient. “Her house was very close to Elphinstone Road station, so it was convenient,” said Anthony Rodrigues, a family friend. Theresa, who lost her life, was mother to seven-year-old Royston and nine-month-old Ruben. She lived with her husband and children in Ram Shyam Kripa CHS, a stone’s throw from the station.
Pradnya Bagwe, 48, and her husband Pramod are recovering from blunt chest injuries.“I had a pile of people on me. I don’t know how I survived,” said Ms. Bagwe, an insurance agent who travels to Churchgate from Elphinstone Road every day, while Mr. Bagwe takes the train to Vile Parle. Mr. Bagwe said, “When I could finally stand up, I steadily panicked till I found my wife being helped by some local residents.” He is still in a state of shock.
Reshma Kadam, 27, a resident of Diva, has been using Elphinstone Road station for two years. “The bridge was narrow and the crowd makes it difficult to negotiate during peak hours. This morning, the situation was worse than usual as people without umbrellas sought to wait out the rain, and made it difficult for others to exit or enter the station.”
Probably the luckiest survivor is Javed Shaikh, who missed being caught in the stampede as he was late for work. His friend Mushtaq, who had been on time and had taken an earlier train from Mumbra, died.
“I took the train at 9.40 a.m. from Mumbra. By the time I reached, the police had cordoned off the area. We could see a large number of people lying on the bridge. This FOB has been a threat to life for a long time during peak hours. The police are deployed to manage the crowd on the bridge, often with lathis.”