Helpless screams, tears as Himachal stampede victims are identified (Lead)

August 4th, 2008 - 12:51 pm ICT by IANS  

By Alkesh Sharma
Anandpur Sahib (Punjab), Aug 4 (IANS) Mothers sat wailing for their children and anxious relatives searched for their loved ones even as doctors at the civil hospital here Monday scrambled to save the injured and complete the autopsies of the 145 killed in the stampede at the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh. “My brother’s whole family has been ruined - all my three nephews have killed in the stampede. They had come with me to visit the temple. I do not know that how I will face my family when I return home,” an inconsolable Balbir Singh from Patra village near Patiala town in Punjab told IANS.

At least 145 people were killed and 40 injured in Sunday’s stampede at Himachal Pradesh’s Naina Devi temple, about 30 km from here, when throngs of devotees panicked after a rumour that boulders were rolling down the popular hilltop shrine.

The bodies of victims were brought in heaps loaded in private trucks from the shrine to the civil hospital here. 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.

Wails of survivors and relatives rent the air 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.

A couple from Ambala town in Haryana sat outside the hospital Monday, weeping for their three sons who died in the stampede.

“My sons were not ready to come but I stubbornly brought them here. I am the most unfortunate man on this earth. I had to see my sons dying in front of me,” said Surinder Singh.

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”. A majority of the victims were from Punjab.

Vichiter Singh, a resident of Punjab’s Sangrur town, said: “I still cannot believe that I have lost both my sons in a fraction of seconds. There was chaos all around and everyone was running to save themselves. There was nobody to help us. My elder son was planning to go to Australia for higher studies and was waiting for his visa but now everything is lost.”

By early Monday morning, about 130 autopsies 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 autopsies were being conducted every hour. “We have constituted 10 teams of doctors for this. The doctors have been called from nearby towns,” he added.

Survivors of the ghastly stampede said the meagre police force present at the shrine were busy “slapping and cane-charging people” rather than bringing the situation under control.

“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.

Kirpal Singh from Ambala town in Haryana, who lost six of his group members in the stampede, sat helplessly in one corner of the hospital.

“Seven of us had come from Ambala to visit the holy temple. There was no time to react and police also started beating the devotees, which led to more trouble. I do not know the whereabouts of my six friends,” he said.

The Naina Devi temple is located 160 km from Himachal Pradesh capital Shimla. 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.

The stampede took place after 11 a.m. Sunday around 400 metres from the temple as thousands of devotees, especially Hindus and Sikhs from adjoining Punjab, thronged the shrine on the second day of the ’sawan navratras’ (nine holy days of the monsoon season).

As relatives of the victims kept pouring in at the Anandpur Sahib, the staff said this was the worst tragedy they had ever witnessed.

“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.

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

Abhishek Sharma from Chandigarh, who was relatives of the victims and assisting the police, said: “I was also going to the temple but stopped midway to help the distraught people in the hospital. Most of the people here are lower middle class and some are illiterate. Many have lost their mobile phones in the stampede and lost their contact numbers.”

“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.

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, who visited the hospital at Anandpur Sahib Sunday eveing, 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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