MUMBAI, Sept 29 (IANS): Twenty-two commuters were killed here on Friday when a horrific stampede broke out on a narrow railway foot overbridge linking Elphinstone Road and Parel stations when hundreds took shelter there to escape pounding rains, officials said.
At least 39 others were injured, some critically, the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Disaster Control said after the morning peak hour tragedy struck on the suburban network - the veritable lifeline of the country's commercial capital.
Many among the eight million plus daily railway commuters, numbed by the unprecedented tragedy, besides politicians, slammed the proposed Bullet Train and demanded that funds meant for it should be diverted to improve commuter safety on the existing network.
Just what caused the stampede was not clear but in no time people desperately trying to get out of the British-era bridge collapsed over one another, many instantly crushed to death. The dead included 14 men and eight women.
The site resembled a war zone with hundreds of wailing commuters, many of them trapped between the footsteps on the stairs and on the gaps in the handle bars and railings. Some even dangled precariously from the bridge while local trains zoomed below.
By the time it was all over, there was a large scattered heap of bloodstained slippers and shoes, handbags or briefcases, tiffin boxes and water bottles, spectacles, crushed mobiles and broken jewellery, pieces of torn clothes and other belongings of the commuters.
Dazed survivors claimed the panic run followed rumours of a short-circuit -- later found to be untrue. Railway officials blamed overcrowding on the bridge due to the downpour as hundreds gathered to take shelter and more kept pouring in.
The first to respond to the disaster were taxi drivers and motorists who rushed the injured and the barely living to the KEM Hospital in Parel in cabs and even two-wheelers.
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal - who reached Mumbai on Friday to inaugurate new train services - announced a high-level probe into the tragedy.
When Goyal and Maharashtra Education Minister Vinod Tawde reached the hospital to meet the injured, they faced demonstrations and sloganeering by thousands of angry commuters and Shiv Sainiks demanding accountability for the deaths.
The hospital appealed for blood donations. Thousands of Mumbaikars responded. Within hours, all the hospital's requirements were met.
The Elphinstone Road station is part of Western Railway and the Parel station belongs to Central Railway. The overbridge linked the two networks.
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief.
"My deepest condolences to all those who have lost their lives due to the stampede in Mumbai. Prayers with those who are injured," Modi tweeted.
The incident provided fuel to BJP ally Shiv Sena and the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party to attack the proposed Rs 1.08 lakh crore Bullet Train project.
Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut termed the deaths "a public massacre" and demanded criminal proceedings against the Railway Minister and top railway officials on charges of "culpable homicide not amounting to murder".
Another Sena MP, Rahul Shewale, said he wrote to then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu in April 2015 demanding that the foot overbridge - the scene of the stampede - should be widened but it was rejected on grounds of paucity of funds and operational constraints.
The central and Maharashtra governments announced compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to families of the dead besides compensation and free medical treatment to the injured.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is abroad, announced a separate probe into the incident and compensation for the victims, most of who were identified by late evening.
Congress leader Ashok Chavan demanded a judicial probe and stringent action against the guilty.
NCP senior leader Jitendra Awhad said the government had promised to fund a Rs 46,000 crore project to overhaul Mumbai's suburban railway network. It was mum on the long-pending suburban elevated rail corridor and instead was focussing on an expensive Bullet Train.
Congress and NCP leaders also demanded the resignation of Railway Minister Goyal, who took charge this month.
The festival-eve calamity sparked off angry reactions on social media, with many questioning lapses vis-a-vis safety and security of commuters even as mega-projects like Bullet Trains are announced.
Many Mumbaikars said they had abandoned plans to go on weekend outings or shopping for Dussehra on Saturday.
Appeals came up on the social media to cancel or curtail Friday night's final Navratri celebrations as a mark of respect to the stampede victims.