KARACHI: At least 62 people, including women and children, were burnt alive when their bus caught fire after an oil tanker collided with it off the National Highway in Malir (briefly reported in Dawn’s Sunday edition) in the wee hours of Sunday.

The fierce blaze left the victims burnt beyond recognition. The ill-fated bus was going to Shikarpur from Karachi. The dead included 13 members of one family and nine of another.

The accident took place a few months after 58 people were killed when a bus smashed into a truck (in November last year) in Khairpur.

Before that, a bus-trailer collision on the National Highway in April near Sukkur claimed over 40 lives.

This followed a collision between two passenger buses and a petrol tanker which had claimed 35 lives in Gadani in Balochistan’s Hub district.

Despite such tragic incidents occurring in quick succession, no action has been taken either to do something about overloaded passenger buses which have become virtually death traps with little provision for safe exits for passengers in such emergencies or for immediate fire control or rescue.

According to officials, the collision took place when the driver of the tanker reportedly carrying combustible material lost control while overtaking a vehicle and hit the overloaded bus. The road linking the National High­way with Super Highway is in a dilapidated condition. The officials and relatives of the victims blamed delayed rescue efforts for the colossal loss of lives.

“We received 62 bodies whose facial features and other parts were deeply burnt,” police surgeon Dr Jalil Qadir said outside the JPMC mortuary.

“The bodies were burnt to the extent that it was difficult to identify their gender and age. After examining the bodies, we decided to take their samples for identification. Blood samples of 24 claimants/heirs were also taken,” he said.

Dr Qadir said the samples would be sent to a laboratory in Islamabad as there was no DNA test facility in Sindh. There is a chemical examination lab in Karachi and the provincial government is considering setting up a DNA facility.

Fierce blaze leaves bodies beyond recognition

According to him, one more patient was brought to the Burns Centre of Civil Hospital in the night. He had suffered burn wounds on his face, nose and ear. The patient told hospital officials that when the fire broke out in the front side of the bus, the passengers ran towards the rear but fell on each other and within a “few minutes” the fast approaching flames engulfed them all.

He said he had saved his life by jumping from a broken window.

“The body of a child was stuck to the mother,” said Dr Nasrin Qamar, a medico-legal officer at the mortuary. Hands and legs turned into ashes and only the middle parts of the bodies remained intact, she added.

Moving scenes were witnessed at the hospital where relatives of the victims had been waiting since early morning to receive the bodies.

“My brother Nazeer Ahmed had come to Karachi from Khairpur to meet his two sons who work in a factory,” said his sister Sadori. “The sons had given the father some money from their salary and also taken his picture with their mobile phones,” the grief-stricken woman said, adding: “I have been here since morning to see the body of my brother, but doctors said there was nothing left to see.”

Saleem, who works at the JPMC mortuary, said a minor girl might be identified because her bangles and some pieces of clothes were intact.

Shahzad, another mortuary worker who was collecting human bones, said a young man had been identified by his relatives with the help of a few pieces of his clothes, but despite this, officials took DNA samples for his proper identification.

“A man and his female relative with her two minor children were also brought for treatment,” said Dr Seemin Jamali, head of the JPMC emergency department. They told doctors that they were in the last row of seats in the bus and saved their lives by jumping from a window after breaking it.

Three other people who were on the roof of the coach also saved their lives by jumping down. One of them, Akhtiar, told journalists that the bus, which left Karachi’s Quaidabad area at about 11pm on Saturday, was fully loaded and some passengers were made to sit on stools kept in the place in the middle of the seats on two sides. He said the tanker which collided with the bus was on the wrong side along a dilapidated stretch of the highway.

“Both the drivers jumped out of the windows and fled,” said Akhtiar, who sustained minor injuries in his foot. If the bus driver had opened the door before jumping out, many lives could have been saved, he added.

None of the passengers was alive when a fire tender reached the place after about two hours.

“Some lives could have been saved if Steel Mills had sent its fire tenders as requested by police,” Sindh Transport Minister Mumtaz Jakhrani told reporters outside the JPMC mortuary.

He claimed that the Steel Town SHO had called the PSM fire station but its attendant told him that they could not send fire tenders without permission by the PSM chairman.

“We have reports that both the drivers are alive and they fled after the collision,” Mr Jakhrani said, adding that police were trying to arrest them.

He said the tanker was carrying chemicals which triggered the fire after the collision. According to him, the chief minister has set up an inquiry committee headed by the Karachi commissioner.

“Initial findings suggest that overtaking by the tanker’s driver caused the accident,” Karachi Traffic DIG Dr Amir Ahmed Shaikh said, adding that narrowness and dilapidated condition of the road contributed to the tragedy.

A witness told police that fire tenders arrived two hours after the accident.

“It is a single track road where heavy traffic ply,” the DIG traffic said, adding that they had written several letters to the authorities concerned for a double track because the road catered to the needs of commuters from Steel Town, Bin Qasim, Gulshan-i-Hadeed and other localities for easy and short access to the Super Highway for upcountry journey.

He said police were also examining reports that the tanker was carrying flammable material and the bus running on CNG which was not allowed for long journey by rules. The bus was also reportedly not fit for long journey.

The DIG traffic said he had also set up a committee comprising two SSPs traffic to ascertain the causes of the accident and suggest measures to avoid such tragedy in future.

The ill-fated bus was owned by one Badar Abro and its driver was Asif Jakhrani, he said, adding that the owner of the tanker had so far not contacted police.

Published in Dawn January 12th , 2014

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