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Vivek Chhetri and Bireswar Banerjee, TT, Darjeeling, July 15: An escort car that was in between the vehicles of President Pranab Mukherjee and chief minister Mamata Banerjee in a convoy travelling from Darjeeling to Bagdogra this morning plunged 200ft into a gorge after swerving off the road amid thick fog, injuring five policemen.
The Mahindra Scorpio hurtled down the slope through thick foliage and came to a halt after hitting a tree. Blinded by the fog, the driver had failed to see the left turn on NH55 in Sonada and swerved to the right, smashing the road barrier and falling into the gorge.
Five officers – Deep Shankar Rudra, a CID special superintendent; A.P. Singh, the chief security liaison officer of the President; sub-inspector Piyush Bhattacharya of the Special Security Unit; Sudip Kumar Biswas of Darjeeling police; and driver Goutam Sen, also attached to the Special Security Unit – escaped with injuries. Sen suffered a fracture in his right hand.
The accident happened around 11.30am when the President and the chief minister were travelling to Bagdogra to catch a flight to Delhi. Bengal governor Keshari Nath Tripathi was in President Mukherjee’s car.
The President’s Tata Safari and the three vehicles in front of it moved on as the chief minister, who was two cars behind the one that met with the accident, stopped immediately and got off.
Sources said Mamata called up Mukherjee and informed him about the accident. The President stopped his car, which was half a kilometre ahead, and waited for 15 minutes at Gorabari. Mukherjee and Tripathi then proceeded towards Kurseong, where they waited for the chief minister.
At Sonada, Mamata monitored the rescue operation, giving out instructions to the rescue team on a microphone, telling those trapped in the gorge to remain strong and assuring them that they would be saved.
Pratap Subba, a local journalist who was passing by, said: “She told me to call local villagers. Someone handed her a mike and she began supervising the rescue operation. I ran towards Gorabari, about 250 metres away, and called villagers,” said Pratap, 29.
“As the slope was steep, two ropes were tied to railway tracks running along the road. Around 100 policemen, civic police personnel and villagers used the ropes to slide down,” he added. Pratap, too, joined the rescue operation.
While sub-inspector Biswas climbed up with the help of a rope, the others were given support so they could walk up slowly.
Before the rescuers began climbing down with the help of the ropes tied to the tracks, civic police volunteer Dipesh Subba and four policemen had walked into the gorge by clutching tree braches and bushes.
“By the time we reached the car, the occupants had wriggled out. It had got stuck in the branches of a tree,” Dipesh said.
Sources said the President and the chief minister were supposed to take a helicopter from the Lebong helipad in Darjeeling to Bagdogra but had to opt for the road journey because of bad weather.
At the Siliguri hospital, doctors said CID special superintendent Rudra had suffered multiple injuries. All five officers have suffered cuts because glass shards from the broken windows hit them. Rudra and driver Sen were taken to the emergency ward and later shifted to the critical care unit. Sub-inspectors Bhattacharya and Biswas were also admitted to the CCU. CT scans were done on all four.
Ministers Gautam Deb and Rabindranath Ghosh and some local Trinamul leaders visited the injured at the hospital.
Mamata in Delhi
Mamata and Mukherjee reached Delhi this evening. Trinamul sources said the chief minister was not scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi separately tomorrow.
Mamata will attend a meeting of the inter-state council to be chaired by Modi tomorrow.
She is scheduled to leave for Calcutta in an evening flight.