Call it fake news or a non-story, but the entire state government machinery, including Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, had believed in the tragedy.
Patna: Around 4pm on Thursday, reports started trickling in that more than ten passengers were burnt alive when the bus they were travelling in fell in a pit and caught fire near Kotwa in East Champaran district of Bihar. The death toll kept rising as more reports came in and most settled at 27 being the final number.
That was until the district administration made it clear late in the night that no one had died in the accident. Call it fake news or a non-story, but the entire state government machinery had believed in the tragedy by then.
Nitish Kumar, who was about to speak at a government function in Patna, heard the sad news in the afternoon and even appealed for a two-minute silence to express his profound grief. Just after the program, he announced Rs 4 lakh compensation for the next of the kin of those “who lost their lives”.
By six in the evening, almost all political leaders started releasing their condolence messages to the media houses and uploaded it on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In a tweet, deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi said the casualty figure might go up to 24 or more.
On the other hand, a team of State Disaster Response Force and state police were busy at the site of the accident looking for any injured or dead.
However, locals told News18 that all those injured in the accident were sent to hospitals by them much before the administrative assistance arrived at the scene.
Around 10pm, approximately six hours after the news of the accident first came in, Inspector General Sunil Kumar confirmed that no one was killed in the accident. He said there was no sign of any body parts inside the charred bus.
Then how did the news of deaths spread like wildfire? Eyewitnesses said they broke the windows to pull out the passengers from the burning bus and they informed that there could be more people inside. The fire engulfed the bus so quickly that locals presumed those left inside were burnt to death.
The casualty figures were presumed based on the total number of seats in the bus. In reality, as the local administration said, 13 passengers had boarded the bus from Muzaffarpur, and 27 more were waiting in Gopalganj district, 40 kilometres away from the accident site, to board the bus.
The district magistrate said that all 13 passengers have been identified. “They have sustained injuries and are undergoing treatment,” he said.
Hearsay confused even the administrative officials who themselves admitted casualties. Even Muzaffarpur commissioner HS Srinivasan, after reaching the spot, acknowledged some casualties, saying, ‘Our focus is now on the injured, not the dead’.
When News18 spoke to some locals who were involved in the rescue effort and asked if they were certain about the deaths, they nodded ‘yes’, but later said they had heard about it from others present there.
Even after the official clarification, locals and even some of the rescued passengers are not ready to buy the argument that no one was killed.
Amit Kumar, was one of the passengers who came from Begusarai to board the bus, said, “I can say for sure that there were more than 13 people on the bus. I can’t believe all came out safely. I managed because I am young and agile but there were children and older people also.”
Amit said his bus ticket was seized by Motihari Superintendent of Police Upendra Prasad Verma. He raised suspicion about the motive and said, “Why did the police take my ticket. In fact, tickets of all other rescued passengers were also taken away.”