Four students died in the stampede during a college event on Saturday.
It was meant to be a night of celebrations for the students of the School of Engineering at the Cochin University of Science and Technology.
Saturday, November 25, was the second day of Dhishna, an annual tech fest organised by students and faculty of COE. Open to the public, it involved exhibitions put up by various departments with a cultural event at the end of each day.
After the day’s events on Saturday, students from SOE and other participating institutions had congregated at the University’s main auditorium for a concert by Bollywood singer Nikhita Gandhi.
But events turned tragic after a stampede resulted in four deaths and over 60 injured. The four who died are all CUSAT students: Athul Thampi from Koothattukulam, Ann Rifta from North Paravur, Sarah Thomas from Thamarassery, and Albin Joseph from Palakkad.
The News Minute visited the campus and spoke to eyewitnesses to piece together what had happened.
Auditorium at lower level
According to a professor at SOE, Dhishna is organised by a core committee comprising students from various departments and usually two faculty coordinators. Each department also has sub-committees of students.
SOE’s principal Dr Dilipkumar Saha said the last edition of Dhishna was held in 2020, after which it did not take place for reasons including the Covid pandemic and university exams.
The CUSAT auditorium, where the stampede took place, is located along one of the main roads of the university, on ground lower than the road. Structured like an amphitheatre, it has only one gate at the back for both entrance and exit.
Prior to the concert, the organisers had placed barricades within the amphitheatre, marking out the areas designated for students and other participants, and delineating a path from the gate down the centre.
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Before the event, scheduled for 7 pm, began, SOE students were first asked to enter the auditorium. Their entry was controlled by student volunteers. Following this, students from other schools within the university and from other colleges were let in.
Eyewitnesses said the organisers had kept the gate open just enough for one or two people to enter, so as to regulate the entry of the crowd. As the scheduled time for the event approached, more people started coming in.
While initial reports stated that a sudden downpour caused students to rush into the auditorium to take shelter, it now seems clear that people rushing in just before the event and overcrowding at the gate could have led to the stampede. Students who were present at the time said there was only a light drizzle, explaining that people rushing in to take cover from the rains could not have been the cause behind the tragedy.
The auditorium is at a lower level with steps leading down to it from a gate. According to witnesses, people trying to get in at the top of the steps pushed down on the attendees at the bottom, causing many of them to fall. As the areas on both sides of the entrance were barricaded, it was not possible for people to move to the sides. By then, the steps leading down from the gate were so packed that some attendees suffocated and lost consciousness.
As they saw the people at the bottom of the steps falling, with many stumbling on top of them, volunteers tried to disperse the crowd at the gate and help those who had fallen.
‘We couldn’t believe the news at first’
Witnesses said it was impossible for them to understand what was happening. A group of women students who were at the entrance when the stampede took place said that it felt as though they were swept by a wave.
“We were all pushed forward once and then pushed backward, there was nothing we could do but move with the crowd. But in the initial push forward, people in front of us had fallen,” said a student who did not wish to be named.
She added: “We exited the auditorium as soon as we could, but even then we were unaware of the scale of the tragedy. We saw an ambulance leave and assumed that someone must have had a minor injury due to some other reason. It was only when many more ambulances and private vehicles began taking off with people that the gravity of the situation hit us.”
Even at this point, they were unaware of the fatalities. It was at the Kalamassery Medical College, to which 72 persons were rushed initially, that the students learned about the four deaths through the news channels.
“At first, we were convinced it was fake news. It was difficult to believe that four among us had been killed right in front of us. Later, when we received information from those at the university, it became clear that the news was true,” another woman student said.
‘A few seconds made all the difference’
For Abhiram KR and Arun PA, second-year students of civil engineering, it has been difficult to come to terms with the loss of their classmate Athul Thampi and the pain of other friends who sustained injuries.
“Athul was right behind us when entering the auditorium. By the difference of a few seconds, we were able to enter the SOE students area and secure safe positions,” Abhiram said.
Abhiram and Arun said they heard of the tragedy only after they received calls from those who had been taken to the hospital. “We were inside the auditorium when it all unfolded, yet we didn’t know that this had happened at the entrance,” Abhiram said.
When asked about the crowd at former editions of the tech fest, they said that they were unable to comment as this was the first Dhishna they attended. “In fact, the coordinators probably did not have much of an idea as the fest hadn’t been conducted for a few years now,” they said.
Sijimol KK, an office attendant at SOE, was part of the crowd at the entrance at the time of the stampede. “
As the time of the event approached, I went to the auditorium. When I entered, the gate was opened only slightly. But when more people started coming, the force of the crowd pushed open the gates, pushing people off their feet at the bottom of the stairs,” she said. “As there were barricades separating the aisle from the areas on either side, those in the middle couldn’t move to the sides either. I remember telling the students next to me that I couldn’t breathe. Soon I fell unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I was inside an ambulance parked outside the auditorium and received first aid there.”
However, other eyewitnesses said that the gates remained closed and weren’t forced open as Sijimol said. “As the gates were closed, people also couldn’t get out when the crowd became packed, making the situation worse,” a student said.
On Sunday morning, the spot was inspected by scientific experts of the police under Ernakulam sub-division central assistant commissioner Jayakumar.
“The experts are inspecting the site, looking for bloodstains or other evidence. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any blood, but the experts will use scientific methods to ascertain this,” he said.
Jayakumar also said the police is currently of the opinion that the stampede was caused by poor crowd supervision. He said the exact cause can be determined only after a thorough investigation.
After the public paid tribute to the deceased students at the SOE campus on Sunday, faculty members met with principal Dilipkumar and decided to keep SOE closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, in addition to the common holiday across the university on Monday.
Dilipkumar told The News Minute that faculty members will convene a meeting again on Wednesday to decide further course of action.
This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.