Second in the series in memory of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is this story (which came out in 2002 on the disaster’s 18th anniversary) of Mr. V. Anand, Ex-ADRM/BSL/CR, Now GM/SR a railway employee on that fateful night, on what he saw………
”Eighteen years have gone by since the Bhopal Gas tragedy. The victims of the biggest industrial accident are yet to receive succour. “The Bhopal Gas Tragedy “ has been lost in the collective consciousness of the nation. Yes, life has to go on – we must light candles and offer prayers for the victims – but do spare a thought for those who lost their lives in their devotion to duty.
I am talking of the “unhonoured,” “unwept” and “unsung” railwaymen who stood like “boys on the burning deck” and kept the wheels of Indian Railways turning.
Third of December 1984 dawned like any other day at Bhusaval Junction the heart of Central Railway operations. It was a pleasant bracing winter morning and it was “…business as usual….” The 00-00 hours to 08-00 hours shift in the Control Office was busy tying up the loose ends of the previous day’s operations and gathering information to plan the day’s work. The telephone lines were buzzing from different directions and all the ‘control boards’ were busy like the proverbial beehives. North bound trains towards Itarsi Junction, South bound trains towards Mumbai, West bound trains towards Surat and East bound trains towards Nagpur marked their progress on the control charts.
But wait! the Itarsi line was fading. Those were the days when railway communication was mainly through the overhead telegraph wires. Optic Fibre Cable was still in its infancy. It was the pre Sam-Pitroda days and telephone instruments were a luxury. There were no STD facilities and what was called a “lighting call” took a couple of hours to materialise!
At first the Bhusaval Control Office shrugged off the lack of communication with Itarsi as routine, but when the silence continued it was disquieting. The railways still had their more than 100 years old MORSE instruments functioning and there was a class of railwaymen which is extinct now called ‘Signallers’ who used the DOT-DASH-DOT method to raise Bhopal. Finally the headquarters control office at Mumbai confirmed that there was something seriously amiss at Bhopal which in those days was an area controlled from the Jhansi Railway Divisional Office. Communication to Bhopal was via Itarsi.
By about 6-00 a.m it was evident that a disaster had struck Bhopal. No trains were leaving Bhopal and those which entered just seemed to have disappeared into a ‘black hole’ till the yard was full and no more trains could be admitted.
The initial reports were almost flippant – “…. some evil fairy has struck and sleeping sickness has overtaken Bhopal….” Wild rumours started spreading. In the aftermath of the 1984 riots the militant Sikh organisations were blamed for everything.
Black 3rd December brought the news that people had been dropping dead like flies in Bhopal and those who could manage were scrambling into trains which were running away from Bhopal. There was a mass exodus with the Government functionaries abandoning Bhopal and commandeering whatever vehicles were available.
As the next shift railway workers streamed in at Bhopal they saw the horrifying sight of their colleagues slumped over at the workspot. Signalmen and Stationmasters in the busy NISHATPURA yard which was the epicentre of the gas leak had collapsed with the signal levers still in their hands. Since the signals did not turn green the engine drivers, died in their cabs dutifully waiting for the signals. Clerks at the booking windows had keeled over with the ticket boxes and the cash safe wide open. The only redeeming feature was that the deadly gas had struck without fear or favour and even thieves dare not enter Bhopal!
Back at the Bhusaval Control Office the full impact of the happenings at Bhopal was still sinking in. Plans were made to send medical aid and manpower to Bhopal to restart the operations.
In the glorious tradition of Indian Railways not one employee questioned the decision to send people to Bhopal. Whenever there is a disaster, man made or natural, it is ingrained in railwaymen to rush to the scene of the disaster and none will quit his post till the job is done. The last civilian to leave Tezpur when the Chinese invaded India in 1962 was the Station Master!
Meanwhile, rumours had spread that a second wave of poisonous gas, even deadlier than the first one, had broken loose and the steady exodus further swelled due to the rush of the panic stricken residents.
While these streams of humanity were going out of Bhopal, there was one band of railwaymen going towards Bhopal. In retrospect one may say “Fools rushed where angels feared to tread,” but at that point of time the Railwaymen and women of Itarsi, 90 kms. from Bhopal banded themselves together and set off in a caravan of road vehicles to the illfated city of Bhopal. Unmindful of the people exhorting them to go back, the unsung heroes armed with food and medicine, wended their way to Bhopal.
Nobody knew exactly what had happened except that some gas had engulfed Bhopal and as the sun rose the gas diffused and finally dispersed leaving in its wake thousands of humans choking, coughing and blinded. The “council of war” at the Bhusaval control office decided that a relief train should start immediately. On the presumption that only a nerve gas could disable people so rapidly, all the stocks of ATROPINE were commandeered along with hundreds of vials of eye drops.
The Special Train carrying a multidisciplinary team of railway employees including doctors and para-medics, covered the distance of 302 kms. from Bhusaval to Itarsi in 3 hours flat. When we reached Bhopal we were informed that the Government Administration had finally got their act together – probably shamed into action by the railwaymen who had proceeded from Itarsi.
We were told to organise relief operations in the Itarsi civil hospital. We found that the ATROPINE vials and “Visine” eye drops were useless. I still do not know whether there is an antidote to METHYL ISOCYANATE – the poisonous substance which had annihilated everyone near the Union Carbide Factory in Bhopal.
The sight at Itarsi was something straight out of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ Dozens of men, women and children were writhing in agony and we watched them in horrified helplessness. Death was a welcome relief to the victims, their eyeballs swollen red and bursting, every breath bringing agony to their burning lungs. The screams of the tortured bodies were in different languages. As train after train went past Itarsi discharging the bodies of the victims of the monstrous gas, the famous cliché that “from Kashmir to Kanniyakumari Indian Railways is one” was poignantly apparent as we tried our best to soothe the victims in whatever language we could speak. Faced with their end these poor souls uncomplainingly requested that their next of kin should be informed and their belongings taken care of. I still cannot forget the poor blinded Malayalee boy holding my hands imploring me to convey some important news to his mother in Kerala.
The dying wish of a TTE (Travelling Ticket Examiner ) was that his settlement dues should be expedited and his family cared for. In his delirious death he kept apologising for abandoning his train and pressed the reservation chart into the hands of another railwayman. His sightless eyes failed to reveal that it was a doctor.
There was no way for postmortem to be performed and all the death certificates were signed with the words “Cardiac arrest due to unknown causes”.
The railways raced back to normality within 24 hours of the accident. Hundreds of railwaymen still bear the physical and mental scars of that black day.
When I joined the Railways I was asked to make a daily prayer that there should be no fatal railway accidents in my career and I do not have to remove mangled bodies from a train wreck. I never expected that I would live to see so many dead and dying humans around.
While we continue to pray for their souls, let us salute the railwaymen who tenaciously clung to their workspots and rushed to the scene of disaster.”