Doctors struggle with rush of Himachal stampede victims

August 4th, 2008 - 10:47 am ICT by IANS  

By Alkesh Sharma and Vishal Gulati
Naina Devi/Anandpur Sahib, Aug 4 (IANS) Doctors struggled through the night in an Anandpur Sahib hospital to complete 130 post-mortem examinations of the 145 Naina Devi stampede victims by Monday morning and the police started to hand over the bodies to relatives. At least 145 people were killed and 40 injured in a stampede at the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh when throngs of devotees panicked after a rumour that boulders were rolling down the popular hill shrine.

Most of those killed in Sunday’s stampede were women and children. A majority of the victims were from neighbouring Punjab.

The dead included 39 children and over 30 women in the worst-ever temple tragedy in the hill state that is referred to as the “land of gods”.

The bodies of victims were brought in heaps loaded in private trucks from the shrine to the civil hospital in Punjab’s Anandpur Sahib town, about 30 km from the temple. The hospital ran out of space to accommodate the bodies and most lay in the corridors and even in the open, as relatives began pouring in from all over Punjab and Haryana to look for their loved ones.

By early Monday, about 130 postmortems had been conducted and the bodies were being handed over to their families, doctors said. Sixteen bodies were still lying unidentified at the hospital.

Hospital senior medical officer (SMO) Ashok Sharma told IANS that 25-30 post-mortems were being conducted every hour. “We have constituted 10 teams of doctors for this. The doctors have been called from nearby towns,” he added.

The stampede took place after 11 a.m. Sunday as thousands of devotees, especially Hindus and Sikhs from adjoining Punjab, thronged the famous hilltop shrine on the second day of the ’sawan navratras’ (nine holy days of the monsoon season).

Survivors of Sunday’s ghastly stampede at the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh said the meagre police force present at the shrine were more busy “slapping and cane-charging people” than bringing the situation under control after.

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, who visited the hospital at Anandpur Sahib, said 140 people died in the tragedy.

The toll was mounting apparently because the bodies of those who tumbled down the hillside after a safety barricade gave way under their weight were being recovered by the police and rescuers.

Rescue operations at the shrine, approachable only on foot with a steep climb, were hit by inclement weather and lack of coordination among various agencies.

The temple is located 160 km from state capital Shimla, the popular hill resort in northern India.

According to mythology, an eye of Sati, Lord Shiva’s consort, fell at the site during his tandav (dance of destruction), earning the place its name Naina Devi - goddess’s eye. It is one of the most popular shrines in north India.

Additional director general of Himachal police D.S. Manhas told IANS from Shimla that the stampede occurred when someone spread the rumour that boulders had started rolling down from the hill shrine. This led to panic and one of the safety barricades gave away under the weight of rushing devotees.

The accident took place around 400 metres from the main temple.

“I was slapped by a policeman when I sought his help following the stampede. Then other policemen joined in and lathi-charged the crowds present there. This made things worse after the stampede. Had the police helped people, the casualties would not have been so high,” Bali Singh, a devotee from Haryana’s Fatehabad town, told IANS.

Bali Singh lost both his young daughters Gurmit and Malkit in the tragedy.

“We have been receiving bodies in heaps since the first truckload arrived around 2 p.m. Sunday. There is not even enough space to put up the bodies properly so we have put them up in all available places,” said a hospital attendant in Anandpur Sahib.

As relatives of the victims kept pouring in at the hospital in the afternoon and evening, the staff said this was the worst tragedy they had ever witnessed.

Wails and cries of survivors and relatives kept coming in periodically as the bodies - about 145 of them - were identified one by one and the police and hospital staff completed legal and post-mortem examination formalities.

Volunteers in Anandpur Sahib, including those from an NGO led by Baba Labh Singh, helped the authorities in unloading the bodies and housing relatives.

“There were hardly any policemen at Naina Devi keeping in view the crowds that came Sunday. And when the rumour of a landslide led to mayhem and stampede, the policemen only aggravated the situation by cane-charging people. Two of my nieces died in the stampede but I was able to save many others,” survivor Hakam Singh told IANS as he completed formalities to get his nieces’ bodies released.

The Himachal Pradesh chief minister said an inquiry would be conducted into allegations that the police force was inadequate and the police beat up devotees after the stampede.

“We will take action only after an inquiry,” Dhumal said here after journalists asked him about survivors’ complaints.

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