There was an unusual rush at Machchhu river in Gujarat's Morbi district on Sunday evening on the occasion of Chhath Puja. As the banks got crowded, people started assembling over the 140-year-old bridge to watch the immersion of idols in the river.
The entry to the 765-meter-long bridge, which was opened for public on October 26 by Jaysukh Patel, managing director of Oreva Group that got the bridge repaired, was from the Morbi town side and exit from the other.
"Normally, people walk through the bridge and exit from the other side. Whenever the security personnel see people standing on the bridge and there is a rush, ticket issuing is stopped," said a person who identified himself as Suleman.
That did not happen on Sunday, locals said.
According to officials, around 220 tickets were issued from the ticket counter but many more people entered as the lone security guard failed to stop the people from entering. "Many others entered without a ticket," said a Morbi municipal authority official, quoting a preliminary inquiry.
At about 6.15pm, there were close to 400 to 450 people on the bridge. "Some of them were standing and a few youngsters were jumping and making the bridge swing. The bridge was swinging and making a lot of noise," said a construction worker, Ajay Kumar, 32, who is from Banaras.
Another local, who did not give his name, said that at about 6.40pm, the iron cables, on which the bridge was suspended, caved in from the middle . "People fell over each other and some of them got thrown into the river. Some who were on the sides of the 4.5-meter-wide bridge saved themselves by holding the railings," he said.
Locals said there was total chaos all around as the lighting system on the bridge also collapsed and nothing was visible. People were crying and loud screams for help could be heard.
"We were sitting near our houses and my friend was telling me that the bridge looks overcrowded. Suddenly we heard screams for help and we ran to the bridge," said Pankaj Kumar, 24, who works as a carpenter at the local Swaminarayan temple. There were many people hanging, many struggling in the river, their screams piercing the night that seemed like forever, he recalled.
"We were able to rescue 30-35 persons hanging from the bridge," he said. "The police and other rescue workers came about half an hour after the incident. Three children under eight years of age died despite our best efforts to save them," he said. However, Kumar was able to save a child in an ambulance by giving him mouth to mouth respiration.
Suleman added that as the news of the tragedy spread some local fishermen came with their boats and rescued some people. "Some of us entered the water and pulled out people who had kept themselves afloat. We took them to local hospitals," he said. As the water in the middle of the river, where most number of people fell, was about 20 metre deep, the local fishermen were not able to rescue many people from there, locals said.
Gujarat home minister Harsh Sanghavi said that at about 7.30pm on Sunday a team of expert divers of the state disaster relief force (SDRF) and the Gujarat police reached the accident site and started the rescue operations. However, the operations had to be halted as there was not enough lights. The rescue resumed at about 8.15pm when local Morbi authorities set up flood lights at the accident site, locals said.
By about 9pm, about 60 dead bodies had been brought to the Morbi district hospital. "The number was increasing by every hour," said Gujarat inspector general of police Ashok Yadav. Teams of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), Indian Army and Navy also started conducting rescue and search operations at about 2am.
By Monday morning, Sanghavi announced that the death toll has increased to 132 and a few more persons are missing. "We are searching for the missing persons. Our deep divers are looking for bodies in the river," he said.
The minister also said that criminal case has been filed against Oreva Group, which carried out the renovation under its corporate social responsibility. Officials said the renovation was carried out by Jindal group on behalf of Oreva. The bridge was opened for public by Oreva Group MD Jaysukh Patel, who was not available for comments.
It wasn't immediately known whether Patel had taken permission from Morbi municipal corporation to open the bridge. On Sunday, chief security officer of the municipality, Sandeep Sinh Jhala, said the bridge was reopened without informing the authorities.
"The bridge was given to Oreva company for operation and maintenance for 15 years. In March this year, it was closed for the public for renovation. It reopened after renovation on the Gujarati New Year day celebrated on October 26," said Jhala.
"It was opened to the public after the completion of the renovation work. We are not aware whether it had fitness certificate (after the renovation work)," he said. The fitness certificate was supposed to be issued by a third party, officials said. The Jindal Group had said the bridge with carrying capacity of 100 persons was safe for operation for another 25 years.
Hasmukh Vbhadiya, 65, vice president of Labhdiji Engineering College Association, said for the first time in many years so many people would have gathered at the bridge. "The bridge was closed for seven months. There is one-way ticket to walk on the foot bridge and it was overcrowded," he said.