Indian police have opened a case of culpable homicide against the company building a highway overpass that collapsed in the eastern city of Kolkata, killing at least 23 people and injuring dozens more.
Rescuers worked all night with cranes and jackhammers to clear concrete slabs and steel girders from the 100-metre length of the overpass that broke off suddenly and crashed down on pedestrians and vehicles on the road below.
Ninety were rescued, many with serious trauma injuries, but chances of finding survivors in the wreckage had dwindled nearly a full day after Thursday’s disaster in a teeming commercial district near the city’s Girish Park.
“It is being ensured that there are no more dead bodies under the debris,” SS Guleria, a deputy inspector general of the National Disaster Response Force, told Reuters Television.
Television channels broadcast images of a street scene with two motorised rickshaws and a crowd of people suddenly obliterated by a mass of falling concrete that narrowly missed cars crawling in a traffic jam.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose centre-left party is seeking re-election next month in the state of West Bengal, said those responsible would not be spared and blamed the previous state government that had awarded the overpass contract in 2007.
Yet she herself faces questions about a construction project that has been plagued by delays and safety fears under her rule.
A newspaper reported last November that Banerjee wanted the overpass – already five years overdue – to be completed by February. Project engineers expressed concerns over whether this would be possible, the Telegraph newspaper said at the time.
The disaster could play a role in the election in West Bengal, whose capital is Kolkata. The poll is one of five being held this month that will give an interim verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nearly two years in power.
Indian company IVRCL was building the 2km Vivekananda Road overpass, according to its web site.
Its shares fell another six per cent on Friday as police announced they had opened a case of culpable homicide.
The local offices of IVRCL were sealed and a police team was on its way to interview bosses at the company’s headquarters in the southern city of Hyderabad, according to reports.
A senior IVRCL manager had drawn national condemnation for calling the disaster an act of God.
“We did not use any inferior quality material and we will co-operate with the investigators,” the company’s director of operations, A.G.K. Murthy told reporters on Thursday. “We are in a state of shock.”
Years of delays may have caused corrosion to metal elements of the overpass, undermining its stability, according to rescuers who examined the wreckage. Locals said that concrete was poured on the stretch the night before its collapse.
Search for survivors continues
Rescue crews are working frantically to free at least 100 people trapped in the rubble of a collapsed highway overpass under construction in the bustling Indian city of Kolkata.
The incident has so far claimed 22 lives.
“Twelve dead bodies have been handed over to their families and three are awaiting final documentation. Six bodies are still unidentified,” said AITC, the ruling party in the state of West Bengal, of which Kolkata is the capital.
About 80 metres of the overpass, which was under construction, collapsed on Thursday morning in a congested part of the central Burrabazar district, trapping vehicles and people underneath it.
“There was a deafening noise and there was dust all around, it went down in seconds,” Mahesh Sarkar, a witness to the collapse, said.
Rescue operations continued into the night, with the army, police and disaster relief force cutting and sifting through mangled metal and concrete debris to find those still trapped.
“One girder seems to have fallen and then another collapsed,” said KP Rao, spokesman for IVRCL, the construction company responsible for the overpass.
“This is a very serious incident,” said Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state.
“But our first priority is to rescue the trapped, treat the injured in hospital and console the families of those who have died,” Banerjee said.
Six units of the National Disaster Response Force were rushed to the site and cranes were being used to lift debris. News footage showed mangled, half-burnt cars being lifted out from the rubble.
Many people had head and neck injuries, and several suffered burns when their vehicles caught fire, police said.
At least 30 engineers were working at the site.
“At least two of our engineers are missing,” Rao said from IVRCL headquarters in Hyderabad.
The army has also been called in to help, said Banerjee, who called off an election rally to visit the site in the state capital. Around 400 army personnel including engineers and medical personnel were deployed, reports said.
Residents formed a human chain to keep onlookers back from rescue operations, reports said.
“Shocked and saddened by collapse of under construction flyover in Kolkata,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on Twitter.
Construction on the overpass started in 2008 but had stopped and started several times amid apparent financial trouble suffered by IVCRL, according to an India Today report.
My thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives in Kolkata. May the injured recover at the earliest.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 31, 2016