A full day after the Majerhat bridge in South Kolkata’s Alipore area collapsed at around 4.40 pm on Tuesday, there had been no word from Gautam Mandal and Uday De. The two labourers at a metro rail construction site adjacent to the bridge were believed to be buried under the rubble.

“They are already dead,” declared Habibul Sheikh, a fellow labourer who was not at the construction site at the time of the incident. “No one could survive this.”

Standing next to him on Wednesday was Mohammed Pradeep, who also works at the site and like Sheikh is from Murshidabad.

Sheikh said they had made several phone calls to Mandal, 50, and De, 22. “It kept ringing till it stopped,” he said. “Not a peep has been heard from them.”

The Majerhat bridge, believed to be more than 40 years old, straddles Diamond Harbour Road and connects Central Kolkata with Behala in South Kolkata and extended parts of South 24 Parganas district. It is surrounded by the tall pillars of the construction site for the Joka-Esplanade metro route, which will connect South West Kolkata with Central Kolkata.

At the time of the collapse, a minibus, five cars and three two-wheelers were on the bridge. Several among the crowd at the spot said there could be more people trapped under the rubble since the metro rail labourers lived in huts by the canal under the bridge.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday said one more body had been found, taking the number of those killed to two. Soumen Bag, 28, who was riding pillion on a friend’s scooter, had been declared dead on arrival at hospital on Tuesday. The second victim was identified as Pranab Dey, a metro rail worker. Twenty people were rescued from the site on Tuesday. Officials said three more had been pulled out from under the rubble since then, though this could not be confirmed. The West Bengal police have filed a suo moto case against unidentified persons.

A section of the Majerhat bridge collapsed over a canal on Tuesday. (Credit: Devarsi Ghosh)

At the Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital in Central Kolkata, relatives of the injured gathered outside the emergency ward. Mohammad Salimullah anxiously waited for news of his 70-year-old father-in-law and elder brother. “My elder brother’s hand is broken but he is alright,” Salimullah said. “My father-in-law’s condition is serious though. He has two broken bones in his right chest area and one in his left chest area along with fractures in his hand and waist.”

Also undergoing treatment was 19-year-old Prantika Goswami, who had jumped off a minibus right before it hurtled on to the breaking bridge. Her neighbour Madhabi De said she had recovered physically but was still traumatised and under observation at the neurology department.

At the Calcutta Medical Research Institute in Alipore, an official said some of the injured had been discharged.

A second body was recovered from the debris on Wednesday. (Credit: Devarsi Ghosh)

Mudslinging begins

Away from the accident site, a blame game was in progress. West Bengal’s minister for urban development and municipal affairs, Firad Hakim, blamed the metro project for the disaster, saying it had weakened the pillars of the bridge. “As a common person, I feel the metro work is the reason,” Hakim said. “The bridge would vibrate because of the heavy piling [of vehicles].”

People living near the bridge shared Hakim’s view, saying heavy traffic had been diverted from James Long Sarani in Behala to the Majerhat bridge. “The bridge was always heavily congested,” said 50-year-old Anuradha Sen. “There would be no place to stand or walk. They had taken out so much soil from underneath the bridge, of course it would fall.”

Sen also alleged the metro project had diverted attention from much-needed repairs at the Majerhat bridge. “There was so much brouhaha around the metro work that no one was paying attention to the bridge,” she said, pointing out that creepers and shoots from trees had grown into multiple cracks in the bridge.

The city metro railway authority, however, denied the project had weakened the bridge. “If metro work was responsible, the pillars would be weakened but here, a section from the middle of the bridge has fallen down, so this metro theory is incorrect,” Anandabazar Patrika quoted a metro official as saying.

Hakim also questioned the investigation being conducted by a Central government fact-finding team, the Rail India Technical and Economic Service. “RITES is not investigating properly,” he alleged.

But an official from the fact-finding team told News18 the bridge had collapsed as a result of poor maintenance. “Our team visited the site in the morning and after thorough inspection, we found that old girders, rainwater ingest, unscientific coating/surface repair were the main reasons behind its collapse,” the official said.

According to the Press Trust of India, the Eastern Railway Zone deputy chief engineer had written to the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority – which comes under the Ministry of Urban Development and Municipal Affairs – on July 27 about support beams that were in poor condition, exposed areas and cracks in the bridge. The report, citing unidentified sources in the railway ministry, also said a study of the Majerhat bridge was conducted after the collapse of an overhead bridge at Andheri railway station in Mumbai in July. This study, too, had pointed to deficiencies in the Majerhat bridge, it added.

In addition, Zee News accessed tenders floated in April by the state’s Public Works Department for repair of the Majerhat bridge and two other flyovers. This runs contrary to the state government’s assertion that the Kolkata Port Trust, a statutory body under the Union Ministry of Shipping, is responsible for the bridge.

Hakim said a “health study” of all bridges under the jurisdiction of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority and Urban Development Ministry was now being conducted. “A high-power committee will present a report after conducting the study,” the minister said. “Today evening, we will have a review meeting based on the report.”

The canal and the metro construction site have reportedly slowed down rescue work. (Credit: Devarsi Ghosh)

According to residents, the Majerhat bridge collapse is symbolic of the lackadaisical attitude of the Trinamool Congress government and successive Communist Party of India (Marxist) governments before it. They pointed out that this was the third such incident in just five years, after the collapse of the Ultadanga flyover in North Kolkata in 2013 and the under-construction Vivekananda flyover in North Kolkata’s Girish Park area in 2016. The Girish Park incident had left 27 dead and 80 injured.

Many residents said the Derozio Setu or “Durgapur Bridge” just 2 km from the Majerhat bridge was equally vulnerable.

Joining the blame game, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Mukul Roy, formerly a member of the Trinamool Congress, said, “Painting the city blue and white, the favourite colours of [Mamata] Banerjee, tops the agenda of the PWD [Public Works Department]. Repair and maintenance of bridges took a back seat.”

Anuradha Sen agreed. “All they did was paint it [the Majerhat bridge],” she said.

The signature blue of the Trinamool Congress is seen amid the Majerhat bridge debris. (Credit: PTI)

‘With our heart and soul’

At the bridge site, a rescue official, who did not want to be identified, said the operation was progressing slowly because the area was difficult. “If the bridge had fallen on solid land, one could easily pull away the debris with a crane,” he explained. “But it fell on a canal. It is difficult to remove all this from wet land.”

He went on to say, “And then there is the metro work alongside, which is a headache. Until and unless the entire wreckage is demolished and removed, we will have no concrete idea of the exact number of casualties.”

However, the official pointed out that the bridge had fortunately collapsed a few metres away from the tracks of the Sealdah-Budge Budge rail route running underneath it.

Meanwhile, rescue teams comprising members of the police, fire brigade, civil defence and National Disaster Response Force worked in tandem. They used cranes to move concrete rubble and propylene gas cutters to melt the bridge’s cast iron frame. Several “victim locating cameras” were inserted into the rubble.

“Ten-people teams are working in shifts day and night,” said Shikha Hazra, a civil defence officer. “The boys are coming from all over Kolkata. We are trying with our heart and soul.”

West Bengal Civil Defence workers take a break from the rescue operation at the Majerhat bridge. (Credit: Devarsi Ghosh)