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Sunday, July 01, 2001

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Collapse of credibility

The theory that a pier of the Kadalundi bridge sank has few takers, says R. Madhavan Nair.

EMIL RAJ Eldo heard a deafening crash. Soon the 15-year-old, tenth-standard student of the St. Joseph Boys High School in Kozhikode, found himself waist-deep in water inside the train which he had boarded at Kozhikode.

Emil swam out of the compartment and found himself in a river. A couple of men in a canoe were trying to pull out passengers. He was also helped ashore. Wet but safe.

Emil survived because he could swim. And because the local people braved a steady rain and reached the accident site in fragile canoes to rescue the passengers.

Many others were not so lucky. By official count at least 50 were dead. Many have sustained injuries that could be permanent and crippling. But for the heavy rain that began 10 minutes after the accident, the locals would have saved many more.

About 15 minutes after the train capsized, 500 men, mostly fishermen and lime-gatherers, were already engaged in rescue work. By the time the Railway and other Government authorities arrived, rescue and relief work was well under way. Voluntary agencies such as Jeevan Raksha Samithi from Wayanad, nearly 100 km away, had sent members for rescue work.

Only bird-lovers used to visit Kadalundi, situated in Kerala's Malappuram district. Its marshes attract a large number of migratory birds every year. But even a week after that Black Friday of June 22, the flow of visitors to Kadalundi was unending. They came, defying the monsoon rain, to have a glimpse of the Mangalore-Chennai Mail and the 140-year-old bridge which collapsed.

The cause of the accident is the topic of heated debate. Many passengers, especially those in coach S-7, had complained the train was wobbling and they feared it would derail.

A team of professors of the Regional Engineering College in Kozhikode, including the principal, Dr. M. P. Chandrasekharan, which inspected the site, said ``the accident was caused not because of a pier of the bridge sinking, as a Railway Minister said, but due to some fault in the train... there is evidence indicating the bogies capsized and then the rail bridge collapsed''.

The theory of the sinking pier has few takers. The bridge has signs of aging and micro-cracks. The pier that has been found damaged after the accident is broken at the top. This can happen only when the bottom half is firmly entrenched.

Available evidence also disproves the theory of the accident being due to geological activity. This notion put forward by Railway Minister of State, Mr. O. Rajagopal, seeks to find a link between the Kadalundi accident and the recent reports of some wells ``vanishing'' in some districts of Kerala. Studies have shown disappearance of wells had been only due to collapse of poorly-built concrete rings.

This has been happening for many years but a train accident of the magnitude witnessed at Kadalundi has not occurred in the past one decade in Kerala. The Perumon train tragedy near Kollam in July 1988, which claimed more than 100 lives, is still a painful memory.

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