Amritsar train driver says he got all-clear to move on, chief guest Navjot Kaur Sidhu denies fleeing accident spot

New Delhi: The driver of the train that mowed down 61 people who were watching an effigy of Ravan burn in Amritsar on Friday has been detained and is being questioned by the Punjab and Railway Police.

Sources said that the driver claimed that he was given green signal and all clear. He had no idea that hundreds of people were standing on the tracks when the train crossed the area.

Minutes after the DMU Jalandhar-Amritsar passenger train ran over the people, the loco pilot of the train had immediately informed the station master at the next station about the incident, a senior railway official said.

The official said that the loco pilot’s version would also be recorded to ascertain the cause of the accident. He said the train movement on the Jalandhar-Amritsar section (including Pathankot) has been suspended following the accident.

Organisers have gone underground

No action has so far been initiated against the organisers, who are leaders of the ruling Congress in Punjab, of the Dusshera event. Police sources said that the organisers had gone underground.

Railway officials were also gathering information from the railway linemen posted along the tracks near the Jora Phatak area who failed to inform the DMU driver regarding the presence of over 700 people on the railway tracks who were watching the burning of the Ravan and other effigies during Dusshera celebrations.

People couldn’t hear train coming

As the Ravan and other effigies went up in flames with the deafening noise of bursting fire crackers, the people standing on the live railway tracks did not realise that a speeding train was approaching.

“We didn’t hear the train coming. It had become dark and everyone was watching the effigy in flames when the train suddenly appeared,” said Mintoo, a migrant labourer staying in the vicinity. Most of the victims are migrant labourers. “Families have been wiped out,” he said.

Nearly 150 people, most of who were watching the burning of effigies or were recording the event on their mobile phones, were mowed down by the train.

Disaster was over in 10-15 seconds

The disaster was over in 10-15 seconds, people at the spot said.

“It took just about 10-15 seconds for the train to pass and leave behind a heap of crushed and dismembered bodies,” an eyewitness said.

The diesel multiple unit (DMU) train was coming from Hoshiarpur to Amritsar via Jalandhar as scheduled around 7pm. Eyewitnesses said normally the Ravana effigy is burnt earlier but this time it was delayed as the chief guest arrived late.

Chief guest Navjot Kaur Sidhu denies fleeing accident spot

Padam Singh Dhingra, a businessman who stays nearby, said, “The Ravana effigy was scheduled to be burnt at 6.15pm but the chief guest, Navjot Kaur Sidhu, who is the wife of Amritsar (East) MLA Navjot Singh Sidhu, came late so the programme was running behind schedule. It was past 7pm when the effigy was burnt after her speech.” There was no barricading near the railway tracks nor any alarm raised by the authorities or organisers, said other witnesses.

Sidhu has denied allegations that she left the venue after the accident took place. “I heard about the deaths only after returning home. I called the Police Commissioner and I asked if I should come back, but he said there was way too much chaos. So I decided that I should at least save the ones who were injured, and take them to the hospital for treatment,” she said.

Witnesses at the scene of the accident had earlier alleged that the event was held without the permission of the authorities.

“I blame the organiser for holding the event without gaining the requisite permission from the administration, and I blame Navjot Kaur Sidhu — the wife of Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu — for fleeing the scene after the incident. They have played a very dirty trick on us,” one of them had earlier alleged, demanding action against the organisers of the event. He said it was shameful that people who had come to celebrate Dussehra with so much joy had to go back grieving the loss of their loved ones.

Local media identified the organiser of the event as Mithoo Madan, a local councillor affiliated to the Congress.

Kaur, however, said it was wrong to take advantage of such a tragic incident to further one’s political interests. “Dussehra festivities are held at this site every year. Are you saying that we asked them to stand on the tracks? Did we run the train over them? All the previous governments — even the Akali Dal administration — would hold Dussehra at the same spot. People who are politicising this should be ashamed,” she asserted.

The Congress leader, instead, blamed the Railways for the tragedy. “It was paramount that the Railways slow down the train at the site of a large event like this. How could they run their trains at such speed when there were so many people around? Half the people had moved away after listening to my speech. They did not even realise what had happened!” she said.

Railway authorities defend themselves

Railway authorities in Punjab and New Delhi defended themselves saying that they had not been informed about the Dusshera event at that spot and the local police did not prevent the people from coming on the railway tracks.

Seconds before the DMU train passed by, another train from Amritsar to Howrah via Jalandhar crossed an adjoining track but did not cause any casualty. There are three tracks in the area. A boundary wall separates the dhobi ghat ground from the tracks.

Union Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha visited the accident spot late on Friday night. Sinha said that the incident was being probed and that the tragedy was unfortunate.

Rs 5 lakh compensation for each victim’s family

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has announced a compensation of Rs.5 lakh each for the deceased’s kin, and said that he would personally visit the accident site to supervise rescue and relief operations.