Twenty-five people, including three children, died and eight others were injured after a private sleeper coach bus they were travelling in caught fire on the Nagpur-Mumbai Expressway in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district early on Saturday.
The accident took place at 1.35 a.m. in Pimpalkuta village. The driver, who lost control of the wheel, first hit an iron pole. The bus then grazed past the side wall of a bridge, hit a median, overturned and caught fire, Buldhana Superintendent of Police Sunil Kadasne told The Hindu.
A total of 33 passengers were in the bus operated by Vidharbha Travels, which was on its way from Nagpur to Pune. The eight survivors, including the bus driver, additional driver and helper, are in hospital are said to be stable.
“They escaped from the bus by breaking the glass panes,” Mr. Kadasne said.
The police suspect that the driver dozed off at the wheel. He has been taken into custody.
Identifying the dead had become challenging as the victims sustained severe burns, Mr. Kadasne said.
As the bus overturned and came to rest on its left side, with the door buried, the passengers were trapped inside.
The police suspect the accident was due to human error. “The bus driver, Danish Shaik, would have been fatigued and would have dozed off at the wheel, which resulted in the accident. The vehicle brushed against the bridge wall and there were sparks due to the friction, and it caught fire. Moreover, the bus was plying on the right side of the road, which itself is against the rules,” the officer said.
Initially, Mr. Shaik claimed that the bus caught fire after hitting a divider following a tyre burst. However, a preliminary investigation by the Transport Department said a tyre burst could not have caused the accident, as there were no pieces of rubber or tyre markings at the scene. A case has been registered against the driver and he was taken into custody.
With the bodies being charred beyond recognition, authorities have decided to conduct DNA tests to ascertain the identity of the victims. “Identification of the bodies is being done. We will hand over the bodies to the relatives after the DNA identification,” Mr. Kadasne said.
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his deputy Devendra Fadnavis ordered a probe into the accident and announced an ex gratia of ₹5 lakh to the next of kin of each victim. They went to the accident site and later visited the survivors at the hospital.
Mr. Shinde said the government had taken the accident seriously, and said measures would be taken to prevent accidents on the Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi Expressway.
“So far, most of the accidents on the Samruddhi Expressway have occurred due to human error. But the government has taken this accident seriously and steps will be taken to ensure that accidents and errors don’t happen,” he said, adding that experts would be consulted before putting in place preventive measures.
Said to be the brainchild of Mr. Fadnavis, who represents the Nagpur South West Assembly constituency, the 520-km-long Phase-1 of the Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi Mahamarg, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December last.
The Opposition parties found fault with the Shinde-Fadnavis government and said it had failed to implement any measures to prevent accidents.
Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Uddhav Thackeray said said Saturday’s accident “should open the government’s eyes as more than 300 people have lost their lives on the Expressway since it was opened last year. But the government has not done anything to stop the accidents”.
Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar asked the State government to take serious note of the speed limit of private vehicles on the highway and take immediate measures. “It is very unfortunate that a luxury bus overturned on Samrudhi Highway... Praying for the speedy recovery of those injured in the accident. Urgent measures are suggested to prevent accidents,” Mr. Pawar said.
Mr. Fadnavis ruled out road construction as the cause of the accident.
President Droupadi Murmu, Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, his Telangana counterpart K. Chandrasekhar Rao and other leaders from across the country expressed condolences to the bereaved families.
“The heart-wrenching tragedy in Buldhana, Maharashtra, claiming many precious lives, including children and women, is extremely disturbing. My deepest condolences to the bereaved families. May they have enough courage to bear this tragic loss. I pray for the speedy recovery of the injured,” Ms. Murmu tweeted.
Mr. Modi announced an ex gratia of ₹2 lakh from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund to the next of kin of those who died in the bus accident and also announced ₹50,000 to each of the injured.