Four days after severe blasts ripped through India’s largest ammunition depot at Wardha’s Pulgaon in central India, the eyewitnesses have slowly started opening up about the incident. Civil defence fire fighters have told the doctors that on the intervening night of May 31 and June 1, they saw smoke coming out of one of the 18 sheds where ammunition was stored. “We tried to put it off. As we were trying to douse it, everything went up in flames, and defeaning blasts started,” a patient told the doctors. Eyewitness account point towards the likelihood of fire in dry grass as a triggering factor. Meanwhile, the police have revealed that they got calls from Pakistan to seek details about the blast in one of Asia’s largest ammunition depot.
“The impact of the blast was so severe that a person was thrown up 30 feet away. He suffered compound fractures, and had to be operated on as soon as he was brought in,” Dr Sandeep Srivastav, Dean of Acharya Vinoba Bhave Rural Hospital in Sawangi Meghe, Wardha, told The Sunday Guardian on phone. Midnight blasts in India’s largest ammunition depot took the lives of 19 persons and injured 19. While 18 dead bodies have been found near the location of the blasts, the 19th death is not yet confirmed. “There has been recovery of only body parts. Only DNA test will be able to ascertain if these parts belong to a different person or to some of the 18 persons killed in the blasts,” Smita Patil, acting Superintendent of Police of Wardha told The Sunday Guardian.
Of the 19 injured, two had suffered minor injuries, and were immediately discharged after basic treatment. Many more persons from the nearby villages are feared to have suffered health damage, especially hearing loss. Only medical camps and screenings in the nearby villages will help ascertain that number.
Meanwhile, a senior police official confided in this correspondent that some Wardha officials received calls from Pakistan to get the details of the blast. Considering that Pulgaon facility is a highly sensitive place as it is one of Asia’s largest ammunition depots, the interest shown by the neighbour is not unusual, an official said. “On the day of the blast, I got calls from almost 300 media persons. But then, we realised that some of those calls were not from India. They were from the neighbouring country. That is when we started checking each number before giving any information. We are now exercising great caution while fielding any queries on the blasts,” a senior police officer told The Sunday Guardian.
Meanwhile, the Army continues to cordon off the 36 square kilometres area, refusing entry to any civilians including doctors, top bureaucrats, police officials, ministers or any politicians. “It is a highly sensitive area. Nobody was allowed entry. Even we journalists, who wanted to visit the spot, were stopped at the entry. The Defence Minister visited the location along with the Army Chief. Even Maharashtra’s Chief Minister and Wardha’s Guardian Minister were denied access to the location,” a local reporter told The Sunday Guardian.
A Court of Inquiry has been ordered in the matter, even as the Defence Minister has said that preliminary information didn’t point towards sabotage.
The impact of the blasts was so great that most of the patients had their eardrums torn apart. Many patients also suffered so much trauma that they could not recollect or narrate the incident. “Apart from medical treatment, we also extended psychiatric help to the victims, their families. It is now that the patients have started opening up,” Dr Srivastav said. Vinoba Bhave Rural Hospital is currently treating eight patients.
“The most common complaint is that of ear perforation. Also, there are soft tissue injuries as splinters have flied away and entered the body parts of those who were around the blast site,” he said. The rural hospital is a super-speciality hospital equipped with modern amenities. It also has an attached medical college. On the day of the blasts, the hospital administration co-ordinated in such a way that immediate medical attention could be provided to every patient – from the first one who was wheeled in at around 2 am.
“We got the news of the blast at around 1.30 am. Soon, the disaster help team consisting of professors, heads of departments, came together. From the time the first patient was brought in at 2 am, patients were diligently segregated into critical, moderate and minor injuries categories. All critical care patients were immediately taken to the ICU and three surgeries were performed soon,” he said. He particularly mentioned the synchronised response of the entire district administration including the Medical Superintendent, Civil Surgeon who rushed to the hospital. “Our University’s Chancellor Datta Meghe too supervised the care in person throughout the day that day,” he said.
He pointed out that the district administration needed to hold three-four follow-up health camps in nearby villages to screen the villagers for any health problems. “Many villagers ran away on the day of the blast. Some of them have not yet returned. It is likely that they might have suffered ear perforation,” Dr Srivastav said.
Smita Patil, acting SP of Wardha, said that the entire district administration worked on war footing to provide immediate relief to the villagers. “All the senior officials had come on field. There was minute-to-minute co-ordination among various authorities. We were instrumental in evacuating the nearby villages, sending ambulances from various hospitals to the spot and then to Vinoba Bhave rural hospital. We co-ordinated the movement of the fire brigade. All the VVIP movement too was conducted smoothly. It was a call of duty,” she said.
The villagers fondly remembered Major Manoj Kumar, who was very popular in the surrounding villages and who was to leave Pulgaon for his native place in Kerala the very next day. He was martyred in the line of duty, when he led the operations to douse the raging fire. Villagers remembered him as a warm, jovial and caring officer who always addressed their concerns, and remained accessible to the people. His widow later told the media in Thiruvananthapuram that she was proud her husband died while fighting for the country.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra Chief Minister announced immediate help to the facility and offered compensation to the victims and their families. “The State government has disbursed aid of Rs One Crore Three lakh to the blast victims and their families. The kin of 18 dead persons have been given Rs Five Lakh each, and 13 injured have been given Rs One Lakh each,” Maharashtra Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said.
He, along with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Public Health Minister Dipak Sawant, Medical Education minister Vinod Tawde and Water Resources Minister Girish Mahajan, visited Wardha soon after the mishap.
“The ministers visited the Acharya Vinoba Bhave Hospital in Sawangi Meghe, and enquired about the conditions of the injured. They assured all the medical help from state government to the injured including use of air ambulance. Mr Mungantiwar who is also Guardian Minister of Wardha, directed the district administration to carry out the inspection of damages caused to the houses and other properties in the adjoining villages due to the resultant blasts. He also directed the civil surgeons to conduct health check up camps in the affected villages to ascertain the health problems arising out of the blasts. Mr. Mungantiwar also directed the district administration to expedite the process of helping the injured and affected persons. He also directed to prepare a realistic disaster management plan to counter contingency like this in future,” a spokesperson of the minister said.