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42 Army men feared dead in bridge collapse
Kulwinder Sandhu
Tribune News Service

Kharo (Kinnaur), September 8
At least 42 Army men, including two officers of the 18 Engineers Regiment, were feared drowned in the Sutlej while four jawans were rescued with minor injuries in a bridge collapse here this afternoon.

The incident took place when a team of Army men was giving final touches to the Bailey bridge that was due to be opened to traffic in a couple of days. The bridge was washed away in the flash floods in the Sutlej in June.

The bridge was the main link from Reckong Peo to the upper areas of Pooh, Sumdo, Spiti and other areas of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts. It was also considered as the lifeline of upper Kinnaur.

The Army, Indo-Tibetian Border Police Force (ITBPF) and the police have jointly initiated an operation to recover the dead from the furious river that played havoc in the region in the recent floods.

Messages of the incident were flashed to the Army headquarters and help sought in the form of divers, rafters and helicopters to speed up the rescue operations, said Col M.K. Singhal, Commanding Officer of the 18 Engineers Regiment.

By the time of the filing of this report, no body had been recovered from the river.

The officers who lost their lives included Lieut-Col Amarjit Singh from Mohali, Captain Mandal Vokil and Naib Subedar Vidhy Dharan.

When asked how the bridge collapsed, Colonel Singhal refused to comment, saying things would be clear only after an inquiry. He confirmed that an inquiry had been initiated into the incident.

Arvind Negi, an eyewitness, told The Tribune that 50 Army men were fixing wooden slabs on the bridge when suddenly it collapsed from the centre. All of them fell into the river except for four jawans, who were wearing safety belts. These four jawans had a tight hold on ropes that were fixed to the safety belts. Local people and the Army personnel on the site rescued them immediately. They got just minor injuries and were given first-aid on the spot, said Colonel Singhal. However, he refused to disclose the names of those who were rescued from the incident.

Meanwhile, the Army has asked the authorities of the Nathpa-Jhakhri Hydel Power Project to immediately shut down the gates of the reservoir so that the bodies of the Army personnel could be taken out from the river.

The district administration, on the other had confirmed only 20 casualties without disclosing the names of the dead.

On hearing the news of the incident, all shops were closed in Reckong Peo and other adjoining areas.

Local MLA Jagat Singh Neg and district president of the BJP Tejwant Negi rushed to the spot on hearing the news of the incident. Deputy Commissioner Dr Amardeep Garg and SP Arvind Sharda, who were at Shimla today, were asked by the state government to return to their headquarters immediately.

The 80-tonne and 60-metre long bridge that was being reconstructed here by 18 Engineers Regiment of the Army collapsed all of a sudden, possibly due to some technical fault.

The Tribune correspondent found the side beams of the bridge, made of concrete, intact. Therefore, the only cause of the collapse was some technical fault in the design or construction. When the bridge collapsed, the jawans of 18 Engineers Regiment were fixing the wooden slabs on iron beams.

An official of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), on the condition of anonymity, told The Tribune that the huts and bolts that were fixed in between the iron beams of the bridge were to be rechecked today before clearing it for general traffic.

Lieut-Col Amarjit Singh, who died in the incident, just hours before his death had ordered to recheck all the nuts and bolts, he revealed. The official said that he himself had crossed over the bridge half-an-hour before the incident.

He said that the deceased Lieutenant Colonel was adamant to reopen the bridge today itself.

The army engineering unit was moved from Chandi Mandir to erect new bridges at Kharo, Khab, Leo and Akpa which were washed away in floods due to the bursting of Parechu lake on June 26.

Col Anurag Bhasin of the Border Roads Organisation, which maintains the National Highway-22, said the bridge had been launched successfully and the crucial first stage completed. However, when the second stage was being erected the structure collapsed.

Mr Virbhadra Singh, Chief Minister, has expressed shock over the incident and conveyed his condolences to the bereaved families. He announced Rs 50,000 as immediate relief to next of the kin of the victims on behalf of the state government and directed the district administration to launch operation to locate those who were washed away.

Vijay Mohan adds from Chandigarh: The Army airlifted rescue teams today evening and these have started operations.

According to the district administration officials, the bridge was scheduled to be opened to traffic on September 10.

The Army has been tasked to reconstruct four bridges in the area. Apart from the collapsed bridge, the Army is building the bridge near Khab, which is about 15 km from Pooh on way to Kaurik, the last point on the crucial highway. One more bridge is being built at Apka by the BRO. Both these were scheduled to be completed by September 30. At present, a ropeway has been made operational at Apka, which can ferry up to 1 tonne of load. This is being converted into a bailey bridge.

The National Highway 22, also known as the Hindustan-Tibet Road, is the lifeline of Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti districts. The incident will further delay the efforts to restore the link that was snapped in June after heavy floods damaged several bridges.

The Army had opened an alternative route along the Manali-Keylong axis to reach Kinnaur but this route is suitable only for light vehicles. Another axis, what was earlier the Old Hindustan-Tibet road adjacent to the present highway, was also made operational, but this also suffers from the same problem.

Rahul Das adds from Ambala: The Kharga Corps is coordinating rescue operations in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh where more than 24 Army personnel were washed away after a bridge caved in.

An army officer said that immediately on receiving information about the incident, MI-17 helicopter from Sarsawa and Cheetah helicopters from Jalandhar were pressed into service for rescue operations.

He said that bad weather became a major constraint in the operation. “Divers from special forces were airlifted from Nahan and were dropped at Karcham to look for survivors,” he said. “Efforts are on to assess the damage in terms of casualty in personnel and equipment,” he added. The officer said that the Army has been providing assistance to state authorities in putting through the road from Karcham to Pooh. It was during this assistance that the Army was called to construct the Kharo bridge besides constructing bridges at other locations. “The Army had to brave conditions which were extremely challenging and demanding due to the deep gorges and rapid currents of the Satluj river,” he said.

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