Death toll in India flyover collapse rises to 25; Police detain five staff from contractor IVRCL

Firefighters and rescue workers search for victims at the site of an under-construction flyover after it collapsed in Kolkata, India, on March 31, 2016.
Firefighters and rescue workers search for victims at the site of an under-construction flyover after it collapsed in Kolkata, India, on March 31, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

KOLKATA (Reuters/AFP) - Indian police said on Friday (April 1) they have detained five staff at the company building a flyover that collapsed, killing at least 25 people and injuring dozens.

"Five people of the Hyderabad company have been detained for questioning," said Kolkata deputy commissioner of police Akhilesh Chaturvedi, referring to the contractor IVRCL.

The annoucement came a few hours after police said they had opened a case of culpable homicide against IVRCL.

Emergency authorities said there was little hope of finding any more survivors after pulling almost 100 people from under the rubble of the road that collapsed onto a busy street in Kolkata on Thursday, crushing cars and pedestrians.

"The rescue operation will not stop until all the blocks of concrete and iron girders have been cleared," said deputy police commissioner Akhilesh Chaturvedi as he announced the toll had risen to 25. "Nearly 300 rescuers, including army and disaster management personnel, are working around the clock to clear the rubble."

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) however said there was little hope of finding any more survivors under the rubble of the flyover, which had been under construction since 2009.

Ninety people were saved after a 100m length of the flyover broke off at one end and slammed into pedestrians and vehicles below on a road through a busy commercial district near Girish Park in the eastern city.

"Many of the people rescued have been seriously injured," Police Commissioner Ajay Tyagi told Reuters. "Many could still be buried below the debris."

IVRCL was building the 2km Vivekananda Road flyover, according to its website. Its shares closed down 5 per cent on Thursday.

A senior IVRCL manager has drawn national condemnation for calling the disaster an "act of God".

"We did not use any inferior quality material and we will cooperate with the investigators," director of operations, A.G.K. Murthy said on Thursday in Hyderabad where the firm is based. "We are in a state of shock."

Television channels broadcast images of a street scene with two autorickshaws and a crowd of people suddenly obliterated by a mass of falling concrete that narrowly missed cars crawling in a traffic jam.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose centre-left party is seeking re-election in the state of West Bengal next month, rushed to the scene on Thursday.

Ms Banerjee, 61, said those responsible for the disaster would not be spared and blamed the previous state government that had awarded the flyover contract in 2007.

Yet she herself faces questions about a construction project that has been plagued by delays and safety fears under her rule.

A newspaper reported last November that Ms Banerjee wanted the flyover - already five years overdue - to be completed by February. Project engineers expressed concerns over whether this would be possible, the Telegraph newspaper said at the time.

The disaster could play a role in the West Bengal election, one of five being held this month that will give an interim verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nearly two years in power.

Rescue operations were slow to get under way at first, with nearby residents forming crowds several deep as they tried to help trapped people.

But three cranes working overnight managed to clear some of the wreckage and free access to vehicles with people still believed to be trapped inside.

Emergency workers battled through the night to reach dozens of people still believed trapped. Specialist rescue teams were using heavy cutting machinery and drills to reach an unknown number of people buried under the 100m section of road in Kolkata.

News images from the scene were harrowing, with gruesome pictures showing limbs and bloodied bodies sticking out from underneath huge slabs that had come crashing down on pedestrians, cars and other vehicles.

"Four hundred men from NDRF (the National Disaster Response Force) and 300 Indian army men along with hundreds of police and local officials are at the spot," spokesman Anurag Gupta told AFP on Thursday evening.

The authorities had sealed off the accident site to members of the public, who in the initial hours were seen trying to pull away concrete slabs with their bare hands.

Workers struggled to get cranes and other large machinery through the narrow streets of Burrabazar, one of the oldest and most congested parts of the city, where locals desperately waited for news of missing loved ones.

"Everything is finished," screamed Ms Parbati Mondal, whose fruit-seller husband had not been seen since the accident.

Rescuers carried away an unconscious man by two arms and one leg as the other leg, clearly broken, flapped uselessly.

Getting survivors to hospital was complicated by the lack of access for ambulances to the flyover, which is crowded by buildings on either side. Safety standards were lax, witnesses said.

"Every night, hundreds of labourers would build the flyover and they would cook and sleep near the site by day," said Mr Ravindra Kumar Gupta, a grocer, who pulled out six bodies, together with his friends.

"The government wanted to complete the flyover before the elections and the labourers were working on a tight deadline ... Maybe the hasty construction led to the collapse."

An injured builder told AFP at the scene that he had been working on the structure before it collapsed and had seen bolts come out of the metal girders.

"We were cementing two iron girders for the pillars, but the girders couldn't take the weight of the cement," said 30-year-old Milan Sheikh before being taken away to hospital. "The bolts started coming out this morning and then the flyover came crashing down."

Many locals said they were fleeing their houses for fear that more of the damaged structure could collapse.

"We heard a massive bang sound and our house shook violently. We thought it was an earthquake," 45-year-old resident Sunita Agarwal told AFP. "We're leaving - who knows what will happen next."