A version of this appeared in the Indian Express newspaper in December 2002. This is the unabridged version.
More than twenty years have gone by since the Bhopal Gas tragedy. The victims of the biggest industrial accident are yet to receive succour. "The Bhopal Gas Tragedy" has been lost in the collective consciousness of the nation. Yes, life has to go on - we must offer prayers for the victims - but do spare a thought for those who lost their lives in their devotion to duty.
I refer to the "un-honoured," "unwept" and "unsung" railwaymen who stood like "boys on the burning deck" and kept the wheels of Indian Railways turning.
The third of December 1984 dawned like any other day at Bhusaval Junction, the heart of Central Railway's operations. It was a pleasant bracing winter morning and it was "...business as usual...." The 00-00 hours to 08-00 hours shift in the Control Office was busy tying up the loose ends of the previous day's operations and gathering information to plan the day's work. The telephone lines were buzzing from different directions and all the control boards were busy like the proverbial beehives. North bound trains towards Itarsi Junction, South bound trains towards Mumbai, West bound trains towards Surat and East bound trains towards Nagpur marked their progress on the control charts.
But wait! The Itarsi line was fading. Those were the days when railway communication was mainly through the overhead telegraph wires. Optic Fibre Cable was still in its infancy. It was the pre Sam-Pitroda days and telephone instruments were a luxury. There were no STD facilities and what was called a "lightning call" took a couple of hours to materialise!
At first the Bhusaval Control Office shrugged off the lack of communication with Itarsi as routine, but when the silence continued, it was disquieting. The railways still had their more than 100 years old Morse instruments functioning There was a class of railway men, now extinct, called Signalers who used the DOT-DASH-DOT method to raise Bhopal. Finally the headquarters control office at Mumbai confirmed that there was something seriously amiss at Bhopal which in those days was an area controlled from the Jhansi Railway Divisional Office.
By about 6am it was evident that a disaster had struck Bhopal. No trains were leaving Bhopal and those which entered just seemed to have disappeared into a "black hole" till the yard was full and no more trains could be admitted.
The initial reports were almost flippant - ".... some evil fairy has struck and sleeping sickness has overtaken Bhopal...." Wild rumours started spreading. In the aftermath of the 1984 riots the militant Sikh organisations were being blamed for everything.
The Black third of December brought the news that people were dropping dead like flies in Bhopal and those who could manage to flee were scrambling into trains which were running away from Bhopal. There was a mass exodus with the "haves" abandoning Bhopal and commandeering whatever vehicles were available.
As the next shift railway workers streamed in at Bhopal they saw the horrifying sight of their colleagues dead at the work spot. Signalmen and Stationmasters in the busy Nishatpura yard which was the epicentre of the gas leak had collapsed with the signal levers still in their hands. Since the signals did not turn green the engine drivers died in their cabs dutifully waiting for the signals. Clerks at the booking windows had keeled over with the ticket boxes and the cash safes wide open. The only redeeming feature was that the deadly gas had struck without fear or favour and hence even thieves did not dare enter Bhopal!
Back at the Bhusaval Control Office the full impact of the happenings at Bhopal was still sinking in. Plans were made to send medical aid and manpower to Bhopal to restart train operations. In the glorious tradition of Indian Railways not one employee questioned the decision to send people to Bhopal. Whenever there is a disaster, man made or natural, it is ingrained in railwaymen to rush to the scene of the disaster and none will quit his post till the job is done. The last civilian to leave Tezpur when the Chinese invaded India in 1962 was the Station Master!
Meanwhile, rumours had spread that a second wave of poisonous gas, even deadlier than the first one, had broken loose and the new exodus further swelled the rush of panic stricken residents.
While these streams of humanity were going out of Bhopal, there was one band of railwaymen going towards Bhopal. One may say,"fools rushed in where angels feared to tread" but at that point in time the Railwaymen and women of Itarsi, 90km from Bhopal, banded themselves together and set off in a caravan of road vehicles to the ill-fated city. Unmindful of the people exhorting them to go back, these unsung heroes armed with food and medicine, wended their way to Bhopal.
Nobody knew exactly what had happened except that some gas had engulfed Bhopal. As the sun rose the gas diffused and finally dispersed leaving in its wake thousands of humans choking, coughing and blinded. The "council of war" at the Bhusaval control office decided that a relief train should start immediately. On the presumption that only a nerve gas could disable people so rapidly, all the stocks of atropine as an antidote were commandeered along with hundreds of vials of eye drops. The Special Train carrying a multidisciplinary team of railway employees including doctors and para-medics covered the distance of 302km from Bhusaval to Itarsi in three hours flat. When it reached Bhopal the relief team were informed that the State Government Administration had finally got their act together - probably inspired into action by the railwaymen who had proceeded from Itarsi.
The gas-affected people were pouring into the Itarsi civil hospital. It was found that the atropine vials and "Visine" eye drops were useless. It is still not known whether there is an antidote to methyl isocyanate - the poisonous substance which had annihilated everyone near the Union Carbide Factory.
The sight at the Civil Hospital in Itarsi was something straight out of Dante's Inferno. Dozens of men, women and children were writhing in agony as the doctors watched in horrified helplessness. Death was a welcome relief to the victims, their eyeballs swollen red and bursting, every breath bringing agony to their burning lungs. The screams of the tortured bodies were in different languages. As train after train went past Itarsi discharging the bodies of the victims of the monstrous gas, the famous cliché that "from Kashmir to Kanniyakumari Indian Railways is one" was poignantly apparent as the railway relief team tried its best to soothe the victims in whatever language they could speak. Faced with their end these poor souls uncomplainingly requested that their next of kin should be informed and their belongings taken care of. A poor blinded Malayalee boy held a nurse's hands imploring her to convey some important news to his mother in Kerala.
The dying wish of a TTE (Travelling Ticket Examiner) was that his settlement dues should be expedited and his family cared for. In his delirious death he kept apologising for abandoning his train and pressed the reservation chart into the hands of another railwayman. His sightless eyes failed to reveal that it was a doctor.
There was no way for postmortems to be performed and all the death certificates were signed with the words "Cardiac arrest ".
The railways raced back to normality within 24 hours of the accident, but many railwaymen still bear the physical and mental scars of that black day.
While we continue to pray for the souls of those who lost their lives, let us salute the railwaymen who tenaciously clung to their work spots and made the ultimate sacrifice and those rushed to the scene of disaster while everyone else was rushing away.