Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

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3,000 People, 51 Hours: How Railways War Room Handled Odisha Train Tragedy

275 people were killed in the three-train collision in Odisha

New Delhi:

A collision between two goods train in Berlin and Hannover in November last year saw the tracks being restored after 24 days, while it took five weeks for a track to get restored in Cyprus after a head-on collision.

In India, given the dependence on trains, delay was not an option, which is why among the most important actions that Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw insisted upon, hours after the triple train tragedy in Odisha’s Balasore, was the restoration of railway tracks. But this was only one of the tasks the team had to do under pressure.

This was the task list:

  • The coaches had to be removed.
  • The bodies had to be extracted, sent for medical examination.
  • The bodies then had to be laid out under white sheets beside the tracks.
  • The tracks had to be cleared and fixed.
  • The overhead cables that had snapped had to be repaired.
  • The injured had to be taken to specialty hospitals in Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Kolkata.
  • The bodies that hadn’t been claimed had to be embalmed.
  • The lines and tracks had to be restored for trains to resume services.
  • VIP movement had to be managed, alongside essential rescue and restoration.

The War Room

Nearly 3,000 people monitored by the Railway Ministry’s war room worked round the clock for 51 hours to ensure the tracks were laid, bodies cleared and trains running at the Balasore triple train tragedy site that claimed 275 lives and left over a 1,100 injured, apart from bracing up to the biggest challenge that is not over yet – identification of all bodies and struggling to preserve them till they are claimed.

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The Delhi war room of the Railway Ministry monitored the work as emergency workers spent more than 48 hours since Saturday night doing tasks whose scale was not extensive but also need precision and sensitivity.

And monitoring all of this, while working with states, were eight teams of 50-70 people at the ministry’s war room. There was a DRM or a GM in charge of 300 each, with a Railway Board member monitoring at least three of them.

The war room in Delhi was equipped with five cameras to put in place a communication system to alert which team needed what on the site, and also to ensure there was backup of workforce and material after every eight hours. The chairman of the Railway Board, DG Health and a senior official were given charge of the two hospitals in Cuttack and the mortuary that were at the centre of the tragedy that claimed 275 lives.

Special teams of 70 people worked on repairing tracks and overhead electric cables, which had snapped and most importantly transferring the 200 most severely injured to specialty hospitals to Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Kolkata.

Personal Touch

Incidentally, Mr Vaishnaw has served as the collector of Balasore in the past. This was before he entered politics. He has worked extensively in disaster management, particularly in helping the state come up with its famous disaster preparedness model.

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In 1999, Mr Vaishnaw’s efforts were at the centre of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s management of one of the worst super cyclones that hit the state. It was after this disaster that claimed nearly 10,000 lives that the state came up with the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF), the first of its kind agency in the country, that even predates the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) that was set up in 2006. His personal equation with Mr Patnaik, who has seen Mr Vaishnaw’s work, also helped in fast tracking the work, according to officials.

Restoration Of Railway Tracks

It was due to these efforts that just two days after one of India’s worst train accidents at Bahanaga Bazar in Odisha’s Balasore district, all railway tracks were cleared of wrecked railway coaches and the lines were restored. As far as restoration of tracks was concerned, the minister was clear that it had to be done as quickly as possible so that there was no stalling of transport of essentials.

Mr Vaishnaw reached the site within hours of the accident and stayed there for three days, monitoring the rescue and restoration work that he emphasised had to be done with no compromise on safety and sensitivity. It is learnt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the site within hours of the accident, was in touch with the minister and senior officials throughout the two days of intense rescue and restoration.

Identification Of Bodies, Embalming – Big Challenges

The other challenge before the ministry was to work with the Odisha government to arrange specialised containers, embalming experts and begin DNA sampling, and manage the family members searching for their loved ones amid bodies. A DNA testing centre has also been opened at AIIMS on Monday where samples are being collected.

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The centre specifically sent a team of doctors AIIMS Delhi, Lady Hardinge Medical College and Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital to Odisha to help in the embalming process so that the decomposition of the bodies could be delayed. Six container size freezers were sent to hold at least 200 bodies. To help identify them, the state government on Monday released a 168-page document online with images of those who died, along with lists of people being treated at hospitals.

Many of the passengers did not have reservations and so knowing their details was difficult. By Sunday when it started becoming clear that the identification of the bodies was going to be a major challenge, Mr Vaishnaw, who is also the telecom minister, started looking at ways of reaching out to the families, sources said.

“We used AI tools, SIM card details, some Telecom Ministry tools and mainly SIM records to identify people. The bodies were decomposing…the fingerprints were not coming clearly for us to use Aadhaar. The facial recognition worked as we could identify 64 people like that, of which we actually reached out to 45 families and facilitated their travel,” a senior officer said.

The railways has told its officials in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar to reach out to families for identification of bodies, and the centre is making arrangements for their travel. Ambulances have been arranged to carry bodies. “We have told them to take flights if possible and we will take care of the expenses,” a senior official said.

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Officials said the rescue effort was slowed because two train carriages were pressed together by the impact of the accident, with the Coromandel Express taking all the weight of the goods train.

“A thorough search was conducted in the passenger coaches which have been removed to check for bodies which may still be in them, trapped in steel parts of the coach. In disasters like this, the bodies are severely fragmented and the parts can be mingled. It can be very difficult to separate individuals at times which is why we needed help not just from medical professionals but intelligence from states and we are sharing updated lists with them,” an official said. States pitched in a great deal.

Apart from PM Modi, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had also visited the spot to take stock of the accident.

This was a multi-state operation coordinated by the centre. In the first few hours of the tragedy unfolding, it was personnel from the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF), Odisha Fire Services and NDRF that took care of the rescue.

While the West Bengal government set up a 24×7 control room to monitor relief operations, Ms Banerjee too visited Balasore and Cuttack to assure patients from Bengal that they will be looked after.

She thanked the doctors and nurses at hospitals for their exemplary service during the crisis. The state had rushed a team to the accident site to help with formalities and set up mechanisms to handle the crisis. Most of the unidentified bodies from the accident are believed to be from West Bengal.

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Two top ministers, Women and Child Development Minister Shashi Panja and Finance Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya visited Bhubaneswar on Tuesday. Bengal government officials were seen coordinating with the Odisha administration to make the process as smooth as possible.

The Odisha government provided free transportation for patients of the Balasore train accident who are getting discharged from hospital up to final destination in their home states. The Tamil Nadu government made arrangements to ensure the return of the stranded and injured passengers and. A high-level delegation comprising ministers Udayanidhi Stalin and Sivasankar, along with officials, was sent to coordinate rescue and relief.

Andhra Pradesh Model Praised

Railway officials specifically praised the mechanism used by the Andhra Pradesh government to identify its passengers. Andhra IT Minister G Amarnath said the state used a combination of both tech tools and on ground support to identify people from the state who were injured or dead in the accident.

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“We constituted a committee immediately after a meeting with Chief Minister Jagan Reddy. It had three IPS officers. We got the reservation charts first to know who the passengers were by the next morning, and we zeroed in on 309 passengers who had taken the Coromandel Express to get down in Andhra Pradesh. And there were 34 passengers travelling from Andhra to Howrah. So we had a list of 342 passengers in all. We asked the district administration to get in touch with the passengers’ families. Around 58 people were still not identified, after which details were sent to SPs and people were sent to residences of people, depending on the data we had,” Mr Amarnath said.

He said the Andhra government kept 50 ambulances in Odisha to help injured people reach hospitals. “We deployed revenue officials and police at Srikakulam, which is the district bordering Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, to go to all the hospitals near the site, and with the help of Telugu speaking people, we could get all details about the casualties and injured from our state within the first 20 hours,” he told NDTV.

The Road Ahead

On Tuesday, within hours of coming back to Delhi, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw is learnt to have held a high-level meeting at the ministry and asked officials to draw up plans to fast track the upgradation of safety systems in trains, and plug all holes with regard to any complaints about track management. The CBI has already begun its probe into the accident, mainly to ascertain if there was any external interference or tampering with the railway safety systems.

Officials said lessons they have learnt in managing and mitigating the impact of the tragedy in Balasore will help them in future to set SOPs and deal with the issues of workforce and material management in any railway-related crisis. As of now, officials have said that of the 288 bodies recovered from the accident site, 205 have been identified and sent to their families.

(With inputs from Saurabh Gupta)

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