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40 years ago: A look back at a train accident

Chennai resident Kalpakam Srinivasamurti recalls a rail accident that happened 40 years ago. Her son TS Tirumurti and a few other students of Vivekananda College were on that ill-fated train

He wrote on his handle, @TSTirumurti: “On this day – 31st August 1981, the train we were travelling in derailed and our compartment overturned at Sirpur-Kagaznagar.”

Tirumurti was travelling to New Delhi, together with a few other students of Vivekananda College for an inter-collegiate cultural fest by IIT-Delhi.

In 2020 too, on the same day, Tirumurti had tweeted about the incident.

“We met again today to commemorate an incident of 39 years ago – 31 August, 1981.”

The post features a screenshot of a video call among friends, accompanied by a black-and-white group photo.

Tirumurti’s mother Kalpakam Srinivasamurti, a resident of Poes Garden, terms it an unforgettable incident for everybody in the family.

Recalling the tragic events of the day, she says 24 students from the college pursuing there undergraduate studies were on that Tamil Nadu Express.

According to The Hindu Archives, 15 persons were killed and 88 injured when the train derailed near Asifabad Road Station on the Kazipet Balharsha section of South Central Railway, around 6 p. m.

Fourteen coaches of the super-fast express derailed with five of these turning turtle.

“The compartment carrying the group from Vivekananda College had a narrow escape as their bogey overturned but fell on a field and all of them escaped unhurt,” says Kalpakam.

Tirumurti had informed his parents that all of them were safe, that same night. “My son and another friend hitched a ride to get access to the closest telephone booth to inform us that they were all safe. We had not heard the news until then,” says Kalpakam.

Tirumurti, who was pursuing BCom was the group leader, and he had a responsibility to shoulder, particularly because no faculty had accompanied the contingent.

Fortunately, Tirumurti had left names of all his batchmates along with their residential contact numbers in a sheet of paper, with his parents and they informed the parents of the other children before the news could come as a shock to them the next morning.

“My husband went to the Central Railway Station that night so that they could put up a board saying all the students of the college were safe, and that was how message was relayed those days. Initially, the official was reluctant as he had not received any communication from his colleagues from the site of the accident, but the message was relayed,” says the septuagenarian.

The group continued with their journey and went on to win many prizes at the fest. “I think Tirumurti got first prize in drawing and many others won prizes,” she says, jogging her memory.

Later, when the team returned to Chennai, they received a hero’s welcome at the Central Station.

“Some parents came with aarti to welcome the boys,” says Kalpakam.

“The boys had helped rescue some of the passengers who were trapped. I remember one of the Lions Club’s asking my son to give a talk where he narrated the happenings of the train journey and in return received a book titled Alive. He has also penned his thoughts in Ananda Vikatan with sketches of the train and the site of the accident from those days.”

From the pages of history

Over 1000 passengers were travelling on the Tamil Nadu Express on August 31, 1981 when it derailed near the Asifabad Road Station at Kazipet-Balharsha section of the South Central Railway, according to a report published in The Hindu.

The 21-bogie train is one of the first super-fast trains to meet with such a major accident and it sparked a heated debate in the Lok Sabha the next day.

According to The Hindu Archives, C K Jaffar Sharief, then Union Minister of State for Railways, read out a statement in the Lok Sabha on September 1, and said that out of the 17 coaches that had derailed, five had overturned. The pantry car suffered maximum damage as it was in the middle.

There were also questions over whether the Railways had identified all the dead. A A report asked: “Did only 15 persons die in the Tamil Nadu Express disaster as has been put out by the Railway Ministry so far?”

In those days, a compensation of ₹1,000 was made to the families of those killed, and ₹ 700 and ₹ 250 would go to the seriously injured and those with minor injuries, respectively.

Deputy Minister Mallikarjun did not agree with an “Opposition suggestion that a parliamentary committee should be set up to inquire into the causes of the accident and make recommendations to the Government.”

Special booths

Apart from 24 students of Vivekananda College travelling in the train, a group from the Madras Christian College was also on the train.

A student from Vivekananda College informed his parents in Madras over the telephone from Kazipet that none of his friends was injured, according to a report from The Hindu Archives.

Five special booths were opened at Madras Central Station in the night to give information to the public about the accident.

“The authorities are keeping one tram ready to be run as a special from Madras to the accident spot for the benefit of the relatives of the victims,” says a report, adding that the train might leave Madras around 10 a.m.

Among the various reports are stories of how many passengers came forward to help each other. RT Parthasarathy, former Rajya Sabha member, who was travelling to Delhi by that train, talks about Dr Cherian, a surgeon in the Perambur railway hospital, who organised medical aid for the injured.

Purushottam Rao, a medical technologist on a holiday to Madras, acknowledged the role of his co-passengers, students of Vivekananda College, for pulling him out of the toilet.

The local telephone exchange allowed free calls to be made to Madras, Bangalore and New Delhi by those who had travelled by the train.

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