World

At least 21 killed, many trapped in overpass collapse in eastern India

At least 21 people were killed and as many as 100 injured when a portion of an overpass under construction collapsed on to moving traffic below in a congested area in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta on Thursday, officials said.

Rescue operation hampered by heavy traffic

Massive, deadly overpass collapse in Calcutta

6 years ago
Duration 1:05
Road under construction dropped onto traffic below

At least 21 people were killed and as many as 100 injured when a portion of an overpass under construction collapsed on to moving traffic below in a congested area in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta on Thursday, officials said.

Mamta Banerjee, the top elected official of West Bengal state, confirmed that 15 people died. A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said 21 people died. It was not immediately clear how many people remained missing.

Army troops and personnel from the National Disaster Response Force joined efforts to extract people under the debris. Huge cranes and other rescue equipment reached the site and began clearing the rubble. Workers also used gas cutters to pry open the slabs.

"The area was very, very crowded. Motorized rickshaws, taxis ... there was a lot of traffic," one witness told the New Delhi Television news channel, or NDTV.

An injured traffic police officer is rushed to an ambulance after an overpass that was under construction partially collapsed in Calcutta. (Swapan Mahapatra/Press Trust of India/Associated Press)

Another added: "We heard a loud rumble and then saw a lot of dust in the sky."

Firefighters and residents were trying with their bare hands to rescue those trapped under the wreckage of the 100-metre long metal-and-cement structure that came down in a teeming commercial district near Girish Park. 

A Reuters witness said paramedics at the scene had worked to free people from a minibus taxi that was crushed in the collapse.

"Monumental tragedy. Rescue ops on. Many feared dead," Derek O'Brien, spokesman for the left-wing party that governs the state of West Bengal of which Calcutta is the capital, said in a tweet.

More than 70 injured were admitted to two hospitals in the city, hospital officials said.

Locals and rescue workers work to clear the rubble after the collapse. (Swapan Mahapatra/Press Trust of India/Associated Press)

"The concrete had been laid last night at this part of the bridge," resident Ramesh Kejriwal told Reuters. "I am lucky as I was planning to go downstairs to have juice. When I was thinking about it, I saw that the bridge had collapsed."

Video footage aired on TV channels showed a street scene with two auto rickshaws and a crowd of people suddenly obliterated by a mass of falling concrete that narrowly missed cars crawling in a traffic jam.

Traffic impeding rescue efforts

Troops of the National Disaster Response Force rushed to join rescue efforts in Bara Bazaar, a busy residential and shopping area in central Calcutta.

O.P. Singh, the NDRF chief, said the operation was a "very, very challenging task."

"Most were bleeding profusely," said a senior police officer on the scene. "The problem is that nobody is able to drive an ambulance to the spot," said Akhilesh Chaturvedi, a senior police officer.

A 140-tonne crane brought to the scene was unable to lift the concrete slab under which many people were feared trapped.

Nobody is able to drive an ambulance to the spot.- Akhilesh Chaturvedi, senior police officer.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted his concern and announced that rescue teams would be rushed to the scene.

Yet there was little sign of a coordinated rescue operation, with access for heavy lifting equipment restricted by the buildings on either side of the overpass and heavy traffic in the area.

A man is seen trapped amid the debris of the collapsed overpass. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

Ravindra Kumar Gupta, a grocer, said two buses carrying more than 100 passengers were trapped. Eight taxis and six auto rickshaws were partly visible in the wreckage.

"Every night, hundreds of labourers would build the flyover [overpass] and they would cook and sleep near the site by day," said Gupta, who together with friends pulled out six bodies. "The government wanted to complete the flyover before the elections and the labourers were working on a tight deadline ... Maybe the hasty construction led to the collapse."

Collapses common

Building collapses are common in India, where builders use poor enforcement of regulations and use substandard materials.

The overpass that collapsed is in Calcutta, in western India. (CBC)

Banerjee, seeking re-election in a regional poll next month, rushed to the scene to survey the damage. 

"We will take every action to save lives of those trapped beneath the collapsed flyover [overpass]. Rescue is our top priority," she said.

Vehicles are seen trapped under large chunks of debris from the overpass. (Swapan Mahapatra/Press Trust of India/Associated Press)

Banerjee said those responsible for the disaster would not be spared.

A newspaper reported last November that Banerjee wanted the project — already years late —  to be completed by February. Project engineers expressed concerns over whether this would be possible, The Telegraph said at the time.

The two-kilometre overpass has been under construction since 2009 and has missed several deadlines for completion.

The disaster could play a role in the West Bengal state election, one of five being held from next month that will give a verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nearly two years in power.

Indian company IVRCL is building the Vivekananda Road overpass, according to its web site. Its shares were down 6 per cent after falling as much as 11.8 per cent on news of the disaster.

IVRCL's director of operations, A.G.K. Murthy, said the company was not sure of the cause of the disaster.

"We did not use any inferior quality material and we will cooperate with the investigators," Murthy told reporters in Hyderabad where the firm is based. "We are in a state of shock."

with files from The Associated Press

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