sas it coming I shut my eyes’
Survivors on the ill-fated bus
recall the horror of last Wednesday’s Alawwa tragedy that
will go down as one of the worst rail-road accidents in our history
By Frances Bulathsinghala
For about two years now, the private bus operating
directly from Wewala, a predominantly farming region to Colombo,
had been taking that long-winded journey to the metropolis, leaving
from Wewala off Galkiriyagama around 5 a.m.
Wednesday was no different.
The driver who normally returned from his Colombo trip by about
9 p.m. the previous night, set off once again early in the morning
collecting as many passengers as possible, along the way.
he approached the level crossing at Yangalmodara, near Alawwa the
driver had apparently asked the bus conductor to scan the rail track
for any sign of a train despite the fact that the rail gate at the
level crossing had been closed.
conductor after a cursory glance at the railway track had informed
the driver that no train was in sight. He neither heard nor saw
the Colombo-Kandy intercity express train just close by, its approach
probably hidden due to the sharp bend in the track.
resulting collision was one of the worst accidents in recent times,
claiming 35 lives (as of Thursday) with the bus being dragged some
50 metres by the train before bursting into flames, trapping many
of its passengers. As onlookers and train passengers rushed to the
rescue, the injured were taken to the nearby Alawwa hospital with
many later being transferred to Colombo, Kurunegala and Peradeniya
is just after the bus had approached the middle of the track that
we saw the train speeding towards us. I just closed my eyes,"
says I.G. Somarathana, a farmer from Wewala who had been seated
just behind the bus driver. He had been travelling to Colombo with
is only because I was towards the front of the bus that I escaped
with my sister who was also seated towards the front of the bus.
The train rammed in right from the centre and most of those who
died had been seated towards the middle of the bus and were trapped
in the fire that ensued. As I pulled free out of the wreckage I
saw a woman making futile attempts to get out of the mangled bus
which had burst into flames," he said, speaking with difficulty
from his bed at the Kurunegala hospital. Somarathana's arm is broken
and he is suffering from several fractures in the neck, chest and
hardly have the need to come to Colombo. That day I was travelling
with my elder sister to the foreign employment agency from which
my wife had obtained employment in Saudi Arabia. I had not heard
from her for some time and I had made an appointment with the agency
officials to see if she could be contacted. My sister accompanied
me because she also wanted to look for a job in Colombo," he
sister who had been seated in the centre of the bus is in a serious
condition in the same hospital. Like many of the 50 odd passengers
who had escaped alive, Somarathana, late on Wednesday was still
waiting for family members to locate them.
could not locate my brother until very late in the night. I came
to the Kurunegala hospital but turned back without recognizing my
brother who had been disfigured so much due to the accident,"
says Kumara whose brother Buddhika Bandara is in serious condition
having been operated on Wednesday to remove shrapnel from his body.
can only pray that he recovers," he said, his voice breaking
as he showed us the ticket from Dambulla, where the bus also picked
up many passengers. "He had been keeping the ticket in his
hand as he had paid with a thousand rupee note and the conductor
not having change money to give his balance had marked the money
due to be returned on the ticket," Kumara said.
his tears at the hospital was Sunil who said he had been informed
that his brother, Ananda Bandara, the father of two schoolgoing
children had lost an arm and a leg in the accident.
took the phone call which was made by a police officer who had been
informing family members of the injured and their condition. When
I got the news I consoled myself that he was alive. I did not tell
anyone else in the family and dissuaded his children or his wife
from coming to see him first. It turned out that the information
was not accurate. He is serious, but the doctors have confirmed
that no limbs have been broken. We are worried about the heavy injuries
to his head. Most of the passengers had suffered injury to their
heads and neck area," said Sunil.
bus starts its journey from Wewala, close to our house and this
is the bus that we have travelled in for the past two years. Most
of the passengers who get in from Wewala are farmers. Since the
driver is reluctant to take in passengers travelling short distance
most of the people are those travelling long distance," he
narrated how his brother and several others, covered in blood, had
got into another bus in order to get to the Alawwa hospital, from
where he was later transferred to the Kurunegala hospital.
initial description to us of the scene of horror was terrible. He
said that he had to wrench his leg from the bus seat where it had
got wedged and he saw a child being buried alive in the burning
bus. His regret was that he could not save anyone," Sunil continued.
Hameed, a resident of Ibbagama had boarded the bus from Kurunegala
with the intention of travelling to Colombo on business."He
is a dealer in polythene bags and was going to meet a business colleague
in Colombo," his brother Rifaideen said. Hameed like most of
the injured patients, a majority of them taking treatment at the
Kurunegala hospital, suffered from multiple fractures and was not
able to speak clearly.
had wanted to take his child this time as he wanted to buy her some
toys. We can only thank God that he did not," Rifaideeen added.
And as distraught family members mourned the dead and frantic relatives
rushed to hospitals looking for their family members, both Prime
Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and the Minister of Transport, Felix
Perera expressed horror at the tragedy, saying that maniacs had
taken the seats of bus drivers. This thought was reiterated by the
president of the Private Bus Owners Association, Gemunu Wijeratne,
who is responsible for seeing that private bus owners recruit drivers
who will drive the buses properly.
was also the promise by the Prime Minister soon after the tragedy
that the government would be planning to build flyover bridges near
railway stations. We can only hope that these assurances and pledges
are not closeted into forgetfulness as the horror of last Wednesday's
crash recedes from the public mind.
Some recent train accidents
1989 -38 passengers mostly school children were killed
and 76 injured at Ahungalle in a collision between a train and a
bus at an unprotected railway crossing. 2001 - 9 people were killed,
when a train collided with a bus trying to zigzag its way through
a level crossing between Rambukkana and Kadigamuwa.
- 9 passengers died and 25 were critically injured at Seeduwa when
a train ploughed into a bus that was halfway through a closed railway
crossing. 2001 -15 people were killed and 39 injured when the rear
compartments of a train said to have been travelling at high speed
went off the track at Alawwa.
- 15 people were killed and over 150 injured when an intercity express
train travelling from Kandy to Colombo went off the track at Rambukkana,
due to the brakes malfunctioning.