Friday, May 25, 2001,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Birdhwal ammunition dump on fire
Soldier killed * Villagers evacuated * Traffic on NH 15 diverted
Amarjit Thind
Tribune News Service

Suratgarh, May 24
Hundreds of villagers were evacuated after a major fire broke out at the Birdhwal field ammunition dump, near here, this noon. The Army has sealed off a 20-km area in the radius of the dump. Road and rail traffic has come to a standstill and hundreds of commuters and vehicles have lined on both sides of Bikaner National Highway 15.

The fire, which broke out in the middle of the sub depot where anti-tank mines were stored, spread rapidly, killing guard Kuldip Singh of the Defence Security Corps and causing serious burn injuries to two other sentries who were airlifted to the nearby Army Base Hospital, an Army spokesman said in New Delhi.

He said bursting shells and mines were preventing about 25 civilian and Army fire engines from approaching the depot where nearly 8,000 tonnes of heavy and medium ammunition, including T-72 tank shells, 130mm and 155mm artillery shells, rockets and assorted mines were stored.

The Army authorities were tight-lipped about the incident and refused to disclose anything. The dump stores ammunition for the frontline tank strike corps and other units located along the border with Pakistan. The intense heat wave with temperatures reaching 49 degrees is reportedly one of the reasons for the fire but sources point out that some old ammunition which was not so stable after years of disuse could be responsible.

This is the second major fire to break out in an ammunition dump in Rajasthan after ammunition worth several crores was destroyed last year.

So powerful were the explosions that the window panes of several houses were shattered. Terrified residents could be seen standing on their rooftops to see what was happening. Blasts could be heard in this town, located 13 km from the dump. Army vehicles could be seen ferrying villagers of nearby areas.

One of the shells exploded in the courtyard of the Suratgarh Waterworks, located at Manaksar, and caused a three-feet-deep crater. There was, however, no damage to the building and none of the employees were hurt.

Sources said the fire broke out in one of the stores located at a distance from the main ammunition dump and that the fire had been “contained”. In case the fire does spread to the main stores then Suratgarh too would be evacuated. As of now there was no danger but the situation was being closely monitored, the sources added.

Scores of fire engines from nearby cantonments and Hanumangarh, Bikaner, Sriganganagar, Abohar, Fazilka and other surrounding towns were pressed into service. They were dousing the fire till 6 p.m. Although no explosions were heard after 4. 30 p.m.

The Army authorities are not allowing the movement of any private vehicle. Even the vehicles of the District Collector and the SP were stopped at the main roundabout by Army personnel in Suratgarh. The officials could be heard asking the whereabouts of senior military officials so that the extent of casualties and extent of damage could be ascertained.

Residents of Birdhwal, Harisinghpura, Piperan and Raianwali and several surrounding “dhanis” were evacuated and shifted to various dharamshalas in the town. The Army pressed several vehicles, including buses, into service for evacuating the terrified villagers.

A group of residents from Birdhwal village told TNS they were working in the fields when they heard a loud blast and within seconds there were a string of explosions. The time was about 12 noon. Then a siren was heard and Army personnel rushed to the village with vehicles and told the residents to grab whatever they could and board the waiting lorries.

UNI adds: Trains on the Bikaner-Bathinda section had been stopped at Suratgarh, Mahajan and Hanumangarh stations, while traffic on National Highway 15 was being diverted to the Mahajan and Lunkarnsar areas. Smaller roads in the region also had been closed to traffic.

Senior Army officials, the Ganganagar District Collector and the Superintendent of Police were supervising the rescue and fire fighting operations, the sources said.

They said the depot contained ammunition which could hit in the range of 30 to 100 km. However, this information could not be confirmed with the Army authorities. Ammunition was stored in the depot during the recent Army exercise, “Purna Vijaya”, along the western border.

The district administration was using loudspeakers to ask the people to move to safety. 

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