In Ariyalur’s wake

Following a first-person account of the 1956 train tragedy in Tamil Nadu, published on Open Page last week, an eye-witness to the aftermath writes

March 08, 2014 11:00 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

AT WORK: Loco Foreman J.A. Haliburn in front of a steam engine, an undated image supplied by his son, the author.

AT WORK: Loco Foreman J.A. Haliburn in front of a steam engine, an undated image supplied by his son, the author.

My father, J.A. Haliburn, was a Loco Foreman at TPJ, or Trichinopoly Junction [what is today Tiruchirapalli, in Tamil Nadu] and he was one of the first to be on the scene of the Ariyalur tragedy with a five-tonne steam crane attached to the relief train that went from Golden Rock. The alarm siren [in the railway colony where we lived] had sounded very early in the morning, and it continued to wail for over an hour to summon and marshal the members of a response team, including a dozen medical staff from the Golden Rock Hospital.

Then a college student of 18 years, I joined my father on the relief train. I was with him for the next two days at Ariyalur. Communication facilities were minimal. Nobody knew what to expect before we arrived at the scene.

There, it was a scene of utter carnage. I remember the disaster scene only too well.

The WP Class engine (also known as MacArthur Class) was almost totally embedded in the mud on an embankment. The coal-and-water tender had catapulted over, as if tossed like a child’s discarded toy. Carriages had jack-knifed and were flung into the river below in a curious zig-zag pattern. The steel ones were crushed like tin cans and the wooden ones were reduced to matchwood.

Bodies floated in the by-now shallow waters of the stream. Some of them were being stripped of valuables as the water washed them slowly downstream. Stray dogs had already made their presence felt, scavanging leftover food from an assortment of tiffin carriers. The walking wounded sat dazed on whatever they could find. Personal belongings were strewn everywhere. An eerie silence hung over the scene, as if in the aftermath of a medieval battle.

Curiously, three rear-end carriages were still intact and on the rails. We walked over the wooden sleepers to reach them. The river level had fallen considerably, to a mere trickle — belying the tragedy that it left in its wake only hours earlier.

Heavy rains over the span of a few days had caused catchment ponds and streams to overflow and turned a non-descript stream into a raging torrent that eroded the embankment on either side of the bridging culvert. Consequently, the tracks, to a length of about 25 metres, had remained suspended mid-air — and the train had tried to pass over it. As the next stop was TPJ, about 90 minutes away, the train was undoubtedly hurtling along under a full head of steam.

Consequently, the engine was found more than half-buried. To the best of my knowledge, together with the bodies of the driver and two firemen, much of the engine was never recovered. Presumably they lie entombed to this day.

Whilst on the scene I met Raymond Jabber who at the time was in the Indian Navy. He was on his way home to Trichy on leave prior to joining INS Delhi. He was travelling at the rear of the train, and ran over 5 miles to the nearest station to raise an alarm. For this he was given due recognition and a reward and was feted by the naval authorities. (I believe that upon leaving the Navy he joined the Madras Police and attained a senior rank. He was my classmate and a very good friend.)

One abiding memory of the scene, apart from the carnage, was witnessing the dead being robbed of their jewellery. I saw some police constables ripping off necklaces and hiding them in their colourful turbans. Often, items of jewellery kept slipping down the sides of their turbans.

The hospital porters were now busy and they had been reinforced by others from nearby hospitals, and I suppose from Madras as well. I have scant recollection as to how the injured were rescued and evacuated, but by the second day the scene was like a circus as local villagers and hawkers were attracted to the area. The smell of human putrefaction was becoming an issue and arrangements were made to move the bodies some distance away pending disposal.

The bodies were dumped like cords of timber, one on top of the other. The decision I think was left to the District Medical Officer, and in those days of minimal due process, the identification of the bodies was summarily carried out. That evening, wood from the timber carriages was collected and placed over the bodies and set alight.

My father was there for over a week supervising the recovery, and returned in the very clothes in which he left home.

Born in Tamil Nadu in 1936, the author studied at Campion High School (1947-53) and St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi. He worked with the Indian Sea Customs as an officer in Madras and Visakhapatnam from 1957 before emigrating to England in 1961. There he graduated from night school and spent 35 years in the North Sea oil and gas exploration and extraction industry before retiring in 2001 and settling down outside London with his wife.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.