By Jason Overdorf in Delhi
Published: 26 December 2007
At least fifteen people were killed and hundreds missing feared dead last night after the collapse of a suspension bridge over a river in a remote part of rural Nepal, a local official said.
The bridge across the Bheri River, near Chunchu village in western Nepal, collapsed when 300-400 local people crowded on to it on their way to a Hindu religious festival. As many as half of them swam to safety, but many others were swept downstream and are feared to have drowned. Last night police officers at the scene predicted the death toll would rise.
"It was not an old bridge, but there were too many people on it," said Yam Prasad Suvedi, the district administrative officer of Surkhet District, the area where the accident occurred. The steel suspension bridge was about 350 metres long, Mr Suvedi said.
The Bheri River is said to have strong currents and be difficult to swim in, although the winter flow is said to be slower than at other times of the year. Some people were seen scrambling to safety.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, local agencies deployed a helicopter ambulance. After dark, the rescue efforts continued with boats. One local report estimated that rescuers helped about 40 people swim to safety and about 150 others managed to reach shore on their own.
The Nepalese Army, Armed Police Force, Nepal Police and Nepal Red Cross Society were mobilised along with several helicopters to search for survivors. The remote location of the bridge, however, about 240 miles from the capital, Kathmandu, delayed some of the relief efforts.
The timing of the incident, which occurred during the Bheri's low winter ebb, may have mitigated the effects of the disaster by allowing some of the victims to swim to safety.
The incident took place at around 1.30pm, as the victims made their way to a temple to celebrate the occasion of Dhanya Poornima, a full moon festival.
Last night hopes that a significant number of the missing would be rescued were fading. Anil Pandey, chief district officer in the area, said: "There were possibly 500 people on the bridge when it collapsed because of the weight. Some of them managed to climb to safety, some fell on the banks, but the ones who plunged into the river are the ones still missing."
Police and troops had been called in to help the rescue effort. Mr Pandey told the AFP news agency: "The rescue work has been halted for today as darkness has gripped the area. Police and army have set up temporary camps to begin rescue works from early Wednesday morning. "The remoteness of the area and poor communication facilities has delayed rescue efforts," Mr Pandey added.
According to some local reports, the majority of those missing are women and children. Deputy Inspector General at the regional Armed Police Force Office, Krishna Bahadur Bista, said that most people crossing the bridge had been women and girls.