Writes: Vivek Chhetri
One person died and five others were injured when huge boulders came rolling down a hill and fell on vehicles on NH10 at Bhotay Bhir, near the border with Sikkim, where the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) was carrying out road expansion work, in the early hours of today.
The five injured - all belong to one family which was on a pilgrimage to Bhutan - were struck in their SUV, almost buried under the debris, for four hours.
The slide that stretched for about 40 metres halted traffic on the highway, forcing vehicles going to and from Sikkim to take a detour via Mungsong and Kalimpong. The BRO said it was trying its best to remove the boulders and reopen the highway. However, it couldn't say when NH10 would be opened for traffic.
Apart from four vehicles, which included three trucks and the SUV, a 30-tonne BRO excavator operating at the stretch was also buried under huge piles of boulders. Bhotay Bhir is about 40km from Kalimpong, 75km from Siliguri and a short distance from Rangpo, the border town in Sikkim.
Police identified the dead as Mukesh Chhetri, 32, a truck driver who was a resident of Baikuntapally in Siliguri. He was on his way from Siliguri to Sikkim. "The five injured were occupants of the SUV, and are members of the same family. They have been admitted to a hospital in Sikkim," said a police source.
Yalmo Tamang, a resident of Majitar near Rangpo in East Sikkim, said her family, including husband Nima, daughter Sonam, son Tshering and nephew Pasang Bhutia, was travelling to Bhutan on a pilgrimage when the accident happened. "We were on a pilgrimage to Bhutan and left our home in Majitar in the wee hours and reached the spot (Bhotay Bhir) around 5pm. The back-cutting work was in progress, and a big JCB was right in front of our vehicle. We were stopped for almost 10 minutes at the site because of the work. Just when the JCB driver asked us to move forward, I heard a loud sound coming from above the road and our vehicle was hit by boulders within seconds.
"We immediately started crying out for help," she said.
However, her family had to wait for close to four hours before they were rescued by the BRO labourers. "I could see my children crying. I was scared and nervous. I thought we would die there. I felt we had to wait for eternity before some people heard our screams and rescued us after much effort. It was a horrific experience," she said.
Miraculously, Yalmo and her family have only sustained minor injuries in their hands and legs. All of them are being treated at the Central Referral Hospital in Gangtok. A BRO official said the Tamangs escaped because the groove of the JCB partly shielded the SUV from the falling boulders.
The slide is believed to have been triggered by the cutting down of the hill for road expansion.
Landslides are regular in the hills during the monsoon, but a rarity in the dry season. The BRO, which maintains NH10, has been engaged in the expansion of the highway and was working in the area as part of that exercise. The boulders came rolling down from the hill minutes after an excavator engaged in, what is called back-cutting in construction parlance in these parts, stopped work to allow the vehicles queued on either side of the road to pass through the stretch. Back-cutting is basically cutting down of a hill to flatten the place.
A BRO source, however, denied that they were working at the precise spot where the slide occurred. "Our men were working at a stretch about 15 metres from the spot towards Siliguri. One of our excavators was parked at the slide spot, and was buried under the debris," said the source.
His claim runs contrary to Yalmo's version narrated to The Telegraph.
All small vehicles bound for Sikkim and Siliguri took a detour via the Kalimpong-Munsong route. However, heavy vehicles were stuck on the highway since the alternative route is too narrow and steep, making it difficult for them to manoeuvre. "I have goods loaded in my truck and have no choice but to wait till the road is cleared of the debris and reopened. I hope the road reopens soon," said Rajen Bomzon, a truck driver bound for Sikkim.