The Tunnel of Death | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 28, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

The Tunnel of Death

The Tunnel of Death

My younger sister, Shamima Nargis, bid farewell to her parents and sister in Dhaka in August, 1974, to travel to London to be with her husband, a British citizen, serving with the General Electric Company (GEC). My mother, Prof Dr Maliha Khatun, had mixed feelings about her daughter's departure for a distant land. She was sad, as all mothers are, at the parting of their children. At the same time, she felt happy that Nargis was going to start her own household with her husband.
My sister got a job at the Pubali Bank soon after her arrival. Her life settled into a hectic routine typical of a working woman. She would leave home for work around quarter past eight; travel by Underground train or “Tube” as this is called in Britain; arrive at the bank a few minutes before nine; return home at about five thirty in the evening. She almost always travelled with another Bengali girl, Sailla, who lived with her husband on the first floor of the same building as Shamima and worked at the same bank.

Shamima Nargis
Shamima Nargis

That Friday morning, the last day of February, 1975, and last day of her job in the bank, Shamima was going to the bank, not to work but to pick up some personal items from her desk. She had a slight fever but was impatient to leave earlier than usual. Her friend, Sailla, told her not to go and offered to bring her personal items when she returned home. But Nargis said she must go and left in a hurry without waiting for her friend to finish breakfast.
On that fateful Friday morning a deadly Underground Tube accident occurred at the Moorgate Station on the Northern City Line. The train, jam packed with commuters going to work, crashed into the dead-end of the tunnel. The entire nation was in a state of shock. The Underground train system was considered the safest means of transport and had never experienced any major accident during its century plus operation. More information was subsequently provided by the London Underground and Department of Transport. The terrible accident occurred exactly at 8:46 a.m, when a southbound Northern City Line train 0837 failed to stop at the platform of the Moorgate Station, plowed through a sand barrier and then crashed into a brick wall of the dead-end tunnel, at high speed.
Passengers on the platform said the train appeared to shudder and accelerate as it shot past the station to crash with a deafening sound. The front three carriages were crushed together with the last three intact. The driver and 42 passengers were killed and 74 seriously injured. It was the greatest loss of life on the Underground train lines during peace time and the worst ever train accident on the system.
Gerald Kemp of the Daily Telegraph, the only journalist allowed down to the site of the accident, reported, “It was a horrific mess of limbs and mangled iron... One of the great problems (for the rescue teams) was the intense heat down there. It must have been 120 degrees. It was like opening the door of an oven”
Strangely, the cause of this horrific crash still remains a mystery. The Department of Environment's (official) Report published on March 4, 1976, based on tests and interviews conducted after the accident, stated that there was no equipment failure. It mentioned that the driver, Leslie Newson, had been in good health and had not taken any alcohol or drugs. He had worked for London Underground since 1969, and was known to be a careful and conscientious driver. Yet, investigations also confirmed that the driver had not applied the brakes to slow and then stop the train. The throttle was of the “dead man's switch” type and the driver kept it at full speed until he hit the brick wall; he did not even raise his hands to protect his face at the moment of impact. Accounts of survivors, people on the platform, officials of the Underground and investigations by journalists, revealed that suicide by the driver was the most likely cause of the accident.
Nargis's husband (my brother-in-law), in his office at GEC, was shocked and stunned, like others, at the tragic news of the Moorgate tube disaster. He knew that Nargis travelled by Northern City Line to go to Pubali Bank. He called the Pubali Bank and was informed she had not arrived for work. He rang up home to contact her brother, Farhad, who was a university student. No one received his call. He reasoned that perhaps the brother and sister had gone to a friend's home to collect a packet of clothes sent by their mother from Dhaka. He waited. Finally, at quarter past twelve, he went to Pubali Bank. Sailla, Nargis's friend, told him that Nargis apa had not waited for her to finish breakfast. He began to panic and a terrible trepidation took hold of him, but he tried to convince himself that she must be visiting friends or shopping, as she was not required to attend office on her last day of work.
My younger brother, Farhad, and brother-in-law called all their friends and acquaintances, and received the same reply “She is not here”. They then visited several hospitals where the dead and injured were sent. She was nowhere. Radio and T.V broadcasted continuous news about the frantic rescue operation and names of the dead and injured passengers. It became evening and then night, but no information about Nargis. Her husband, my brother and friends had to accept the bitter fact that she must have been in the ill-fated train. They prayed, wept, and waited for the dreaded news. By night time, almost all the dead and injured passengers had been brought out of the dark, hot and smoke filled Moorgate Station. Sometime later, the media reported that only fifteen passengers, trapped in the first carriage, were still inside the Station. It went on to say that a few may be still alive and every measure was being taken to save them. Extracting passengers from the tunnel proved to be an exceptionally difficult operation. Even more difficult was securing access to the first carriage that had smashed into the brick wall at the dead end with great force and disintegrated into a tangled mass of steel. A Herculean effort was underway; solid brick wall was hacked, heavy debris removed, oxygen pumped into the very end of the tunnel and rescue teams with gas masks, took turns to pull out the bodies in temperatures well above 100 degrees. Doctors and surgeons in the rescue team had to provide medical assistance and amputate limbs when necessary to free persons pinned in the wreckage.
Nargis's husband, my brother and friends, could do nothing but wait and pray. After midnight, they realized that Nargis, one of the last fifteen passengers, at the very end of the tunnel, was either seriously injured or dead. Yet, they did not abandon hope. Miracles happen. She could one of the few believed to be still alive.
At 2:10 am, early morning of Saturday, nearly twenty hours after the Tube disaster, came the dreaded telephone call from one of the police officers monitoring the rescue operations, asking identification of one young woman called “Nargis.” Did she wear a sari? Yes she did. Did she have long hair? Yes. Did she wear rings on her fingers, and how many? Did she have a diamond ring on her left finger? Please come at once to the St Bartholowmew Hospital.
At the hospital, their worst fears became a terrible reality. Nargis lay on the hospital bed in silent, peaceful sleep, an eternal sleep. For the next three days and nights, Nargis slept inside her wooden coffin in one corner of the East London Mosque. She had got into the first of the six carriage train and it was the first carriage that sustained the most casualties in the disaster. She was one of the last to be brought out from the tunnel.
My mother had fallen asleep that Friday afternoon while reading a book. She dreamt that Nargis was being swept away in a flood and with outstretched hands she was calling her mother to save her. She jolted awake from such a terrifying dream and glanced at the wall clock; it showed 2:46 p.m. Next morning, my brother conveyed the sad news to my parents that Nargis had died in a train accident at 8:46 am, on Friday morning, which was exactly 2:46 pm in Dhaka.
On March 5, Nargis arrived at her parent's house in Dhanmondi, Dhaka. On the same day, she was taken out of this house dressed in her white shroud, her eyes closed in eternal sleep, her ears deaf to the cries of her parents, relatives and friends. In June, 1973, she had gone out of the same house, in her bridal attire, to her husband's house. In response to her mother's request to return home and join as lecturer at Mymensingh College, she had written back, “Amma! I shall give you a surprise visit in March.” Nargis had kept her word. In death, she is united with her parents. Her grave in the Banani Cemetery is only a few feet away from those of her father and mother.
Postscript: Although the greatest loss of lives on the Underground train lines during peace time, the Moorgate Tube accident never had a memorial to mark the tragedy. Finally, 38 years later, a memorial has been built, in a park close to the Moorgate Station. It was unveiled on 28th July, 2013, to commemorate the 43 people who died and in tribute to the brave members of the Emergency Services. This was possible due to the campaigning efforts of historian Richard Jones who helped raise awareness and the funds for the memorial. A plaque will be installed in the Moorgate Station itself this year on the 39th anniversary of the disaster (28th February).
 The writer is a former ambassador and secretary.

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