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The horrific accident that claimed 16 lives

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, March 31, 2014

IT was the country's worst road accident more than four decades ago.

Fifteen people either died instantly or within minutes or hours after the accident while the 16th died the next day.

And the place where the accident happened was also known to have been haunted for some time, with sounds of musical instruments and singing being heard there.

Some who were alive at that time recalled hearing stories about the accident spot being haunted but said there was nothing of that sort happening now.

On the front page of its Monday edition, January 22, 1973, The Fiji Times reported the death of 15 passengers after a collision between two buses on the Kings Rd. It happened on a bend near the Laqere bridge in Nasinu, if someone was travelling from Nausori towards Suva.

On the front page of the following day, this newspaper reported the death of the 16th passenger in one of the buses.

All the casualties were passengers in a bus on their way to Suva to throw flowers into the sea as part of a wedding ceremony. They were reportedly singing and playing Indian musical instruments 'when the tragedy struck.

It was Sunday, January 21, 1973 and an auspicious occasion as a close relative of several of the victims, Usma Wati Singh, was marrying Jagdish Prasad Thakur at Davuilevu in Nausori.

The wedding ended well and after guests had their meal, a group of people, mainly women and children, left to throw flowers in the sea later in the afternoon.

Ms Singh's cousin, Satendra Singh told this newspaper the group was going to throw the flowers at Suva Point.

"When the bus reached a bend near Laqere bridge, it collided with another coming from the other side. The driver's side of the bus was ripped off," he said.

Sixteen people who were passengers in the bus carrying the wedding party died in the accident, mostly women and children.

"Some of those who died were my aunts and cousins. Those who survived the accident have either died or migrated overseas."

Mr Singh, who was in Form Six when the tragedy occurred, said it was the worst accident at that time.

He said Ms Singh died in New Zealand recently while Mr Thakur was alive and living there. The couple were not in the bus.

On stories of the area being haunted once, he said he was aware of it but added nothing of that sort seemed to be happening now.

Ever since I was a child, I also heard stories of the area being haunted after the accident, with some people saying musical instruments and singing could be heard there. However, there are no such stories about the place being haunted now, not forgetting that the area and road have gone through developments since 1973.

Taking a trip down memory lane, this newspaper reported on January 22, 1973 that the bus carrying the wedding party collided with a tour coach shortly before 5pm a day earlier.

The story said the metal-frame of the tour coach tore the right side from the other bus, with a bystander saying "one side and the seats smashed like firewood".

Mohammed Unas told this newspaper then that he was at a party nearby when he heard a crash. He looked up and saw injured and dead people tumbling from the side of the bus.

Being a member of the St John Ambulance Brigade at that time, he ran to the accident scene to help the injured.

"Blood was everywhere. When I picked up a child, the blood rushed down my legs. I tried to stop the injured people falling out the torn off side of the bus," he said in the newspaper report.

Mr Unas said too many people were injured to give effective first aid, adding he did his best to get them to hospital as quickly as possible by stopping passing cars.

"I tried to get the children in first. We just had to put the dead bodies to one side," he said.

As the injured were taken to CWM Hospital, off-duty doctors and nurses were called in by their bosses to handle the emergency while others came in voluntarily.

Police had told this newspaper then that 11 people, mostly women and children, died instantly while the others died later.

Extra police officers were also called in, with some assigned to inform the relatives of the deceased and injured passengers while the others controlled the traffic jam for more than two hours.

On January 23, 1973, this newspaper reported that the death toll from the accident had increased to 16 as relatives prepared for the funerals of 13 victims.

It was reported that at times, the mourners, mostly men, got out of control as they thronged cars which brought the dead to the cemetery.

The last bodies to arrive at the cemetery were taken directly to the pyres when the crowd got out of control, it was reported.

Pushpa Wati Singh, the bride's sister, told this newspaper then that the women and children involved in the tragedy were their close relatives who attended the wedding.

"It happened so fast, I thought it was all part of a dream. One moment there was singing and dancing and the next there were unconscious and injured people all around me," she had said.

"I wasn't injured at all in the actual collision but I cut my feet on broken glass when I jumped from the bus. It was a horrible sight and something I will never forget."

She said women and children sitting on the driver's side were hurled and crushed when the buses collided.

This newspaper's editorial comment on January 23, 1973 headlined "Lessons from Laqere tragedy" highlighted how such tragedies could be avoided or prevented.

It said "the accident underlines, however, the general truth that road travel carries with it dangers that call for unceasing care and a sense of great responsibility on the part of all who put themselves in charge of any moving vehicle."

"A more salutary warning could be one before the eyes of every driver that he has in his control something that has in it the potential for bringing mutilation or death to himself and others," the editorial comment read.

On January 25, 1973, The Fiji Times reported on the front page that the driver of the tour coach Faruk Ali, 28, was charged with careless driving and police were investigating 15 other charges against him.

While the eventuality of his case is unknown, what is known though is that lives were lost in the accident and several families were shattered by the tragedy.

The happy way in which Sunday, January 21, 1973 started and the tragic manner in which it ended remained etched in the memories of their relatives who are alive today.

Some lessons may have been learnt from that fatal accident but the fact remains that road fatalities continue to happen and will do so although it may not be as worse now as the Laqere collision.

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