The Day that Wasn’t, photo essay by Debmalya Ray Choudhuri
[T]he day was the 31st of March, 2016. It started off as another usual day, with the financial year coming to an end. People got out to work in the morning and Kolkata, as usual, was jostling with the crowd. Then a terrible thing happened that crippled the city and left an indelible imprint on the minds of the happy go lucky crowd.
It was 12:30 at noon. The place was called Ganesh Talkies. At 100m (nearly 330ft) stretch of a flyover, under construction, collapsed in an instant with a thunderous sound that shook the people near the vicinity. The unfortunate people who happened to have been walking or passing by in their cars, vehicles beneath the flyover were crushed. Some died on the spot and some succumbed to injuries later.
This is not a reportage for the event This is not a reportage for the event, but a first person experience of a witness, incorporating abstraction and blur to portray the chaos and trauma. I was on my vacation at my home town (since I work as a photojournalist in Bombay, a city miles away from the City of Joy). I had decided to go out on a walk with my small camera, exploring the streets of my city and knowing it all over again. This is the place which is really close to the ghats of the Ganga and also a street photographer’s paradise. The days are filled with large trucks carrying goods from the city outwards and porters loading goods. This also happens to be one of the oldest and largest trading hubs of eastern India. So, evidently, there is a lot of crowd and chaos for most parts of the day. I had stopped at a shop to have my lunch, when I heard this huge crashing sound.
For a moment, people around thought that it was an earthquake, so everyone stepped out of their shops and houses. What lied in front was something we could not have dreamt of even in our worst nightmares – a large chunk of flyover crumbled into pieces and groans of people in agony, all shrouded in a huge storm of dust which blinded our eyes for a few moments. It took me a while to fathom what had happened was for real. I saw thousands of people running to the spot to save the people trapped under the debris. Even I followed the crowd. None of the people had an idea how to clear the rubble and take the people out. On having a closer look, we could see blood stains on the slabs, hands and parts lying trapped, a sight so shocking that I would hope no one has to go through again. Given the lackadaisical attitude that most civic authorities in the city have, it took nearly half an hour for the police forces and emergency services (the fire department) to arrive at the spot. I was certain that the damage had been done by then. I was helpless and trembling, yet I could not leave the spot.
Here I was a young photojournalist, for whom this could be another “story” I could have done for my agency, but I could not. I felt so choked that I could not even move from the spot. All of the people were asked to vacate for the rescue team to start their operation. The road was cleared, but I could see thousands of people, on both sides on the footpath, who had gathered, with a look of chagrin, discomfort and fear on their faces. Many of them had their homes on the other side and were left stranded. All the major roads connecting to the place were immediately blocked adding to further commotion.
There were problems in the rescue operation right from the beginning. From what it seemed to me and to most people later on, Kolkata was never prepared to tackle a disaster like this.
That day, I was not a reporter looking for a story, rather a person trapped in a difficult situation. As I gained some composure, I took out my camera and decided to record the experiences of a witness and also the atmosphere of gloom that had descended. I did not want to work my way through and take the pictures of the crash site dead bodies, not only because I had lost all spirits, but also because of my own helplessness seeing something of this sort happen to my own city. So I decided, let me narrate the harrowing incident as a man stuck in the trauma would, let me ask questions from a different perspective.
The army and disaster management team arrived nearly 3 hours after the collapse The army and disaster management team arrived nearly 3 hours after the collapse and even then there was mismanagement and obstacles from local bodies who were trying to intervene in the rescue work. What soon became evident was the fact that the iron beams were so big that they had to be gas-cut to remove in smaller chunks to achieve this herculean task of clearing the debris and rescuing the people. Initially, there were the normal medium duty cranes at the site who had failed to remove the slabs. Soon all the heavy duty cranes were called in for the work. This “soon” happened at around 7 p.m. Many lives were already lost then. The operation lasted throughout the night and into the next morning. For some reason, I could not leave the spot for the entire night. I tried to help the people in the operation with biscuits and water. I was clearly numb, my head was not functioning in sync, yet I made some pictures only to raise questions to the authorities later on.
Afterwards, a lot of things became clear – The beams did not have proper support, the construction company was blacklisted in other states and yet allowed here, the political parties made no decision to review and remodel despite complaints from locals and engineering bodies. Not only were 27 killed and several injured, we, in Kolkata for the first time were exposed to the vulnerability of our own creation. With an improper urban planning, political blame games and vote bank politics, we really stand at the confluence of several unanswered questions. The lives lost will never return, but with them they also took away the faith in the system from Kolkata.
All we hope is that anything of this sort never happens again in the city of joy. As I finish penning down my own feelings, I feel that merely confining it to a 1000 word story can never do justice to those innocent departed souls. There are lot of questions on system, government, politics, engineers, and so on. Just as the entire city came together on that fateful day, I hope together we can transcend these petty issues and create a healthy and safe existence in our own City of Joy.
A short set of images depicting the chaos from the eyes of a witness. (Debmalya Ray Choudhuri)