On 18th July 1999, Tshering Dorji and his elder brother Pema Thinley both of whom were studying at the Muenselling Institute of Khaling were on their way back to the Institute from their summer vacation. Tshering Dorji was studying in class IV, whereas his elder brother Pema Thinley was studying in class II. Both of them were enrolled in Muenselling Institute as low vision students. On that morning, they had walked down from their village in Gomdar and waited at Narfung the whole day trying to flag down any Khaling-bound vehicle to hitch a ride to school. But they could not get catch hold of any car that day as the number of vehicles plying that highway during those days used to be very less. The sky started closing in as the evening twilight began to creep in. They had almost given up their hope to reach the Institute that day when a teacher of Khaling Lower Secondary School, Lopen Pem Tashi came on his scooter. He had come from Samdrup Jongkhar and he informed them that their Institute’s car was coming. After hearing this news, they stopped looking for other vehicles and decided to wait for the Institute’s car. To their delight, the car arrived at around 5 pm and they were happy to know that there were two empty seats as though they had booked them in advance. But as they got in, they didn’t realize that they were heading to one of the greatest ordeal of their life. About 12 kilometers into the journey, the car veered off the road near Melong Brag below Tshelengkhor and crashed into a steep cliff killing three out of five people including the driver. This is an inside story of two survivors of the crash, Tshering Dorji and Sir Shriman Gurung.
“As soon as the car started to move, I thought it was going faster than it should be but as a student, I could not dare to speak out my mind in front of my teacher and the experienced driver. I didn’t have any technical knowledge about driving but something kept telling me that the car was over-speeding. . Nevertheless, things appeared normal in the car and everybody looked relaxed as we drove through the winding road uphill. I was seated right behind Sir Shriman on the left-hand side. The atmosphere inside the car was silent as people began to fall asleep. I also rested my head on the back of the seat and closed my eyes. But soon I was jolted back to my sense when the car began to jerk and tremble as though we were travelling on a rough road. I tried to look outside through the window but could not see the road. I knew we were crashing. So I reached for the holding knob up on the roof, above my window and held it with my hands tightly. In a flash of seconds, I could hear the sound of crashing trees and the branches started coming in crashing through the windows. Then I passed out. When I regained my consciousness, I was inside the car wreck with immovable hands and legs. The car had toppled down and had come to a halt on a normal position. So I was still on my seat. When I turned to my right, I saw my elder brother struggling to breathe. He was not moving though. In a while, I heard somebody moving underneath the crashed seats and scared, I yelled ‘hello’ and I got a reply instantly. He was the third passenger, a class XII passed student of Sherubtse who had hitch a ride from Thimphu. I told him ‘We have crashed, right?’ and he said ‘yes’. ‘Are you ok?’ he asked me. “I am ok but I think my limbs are broken’ I responded. He then told me that he was perfectly ok but he just needed to get rid of a heavy load that was pressing him down. ‘If you could help me get this thing away, I can carry you to safety’ he told me but the heavy load he was referring to was the roof of the car that had crashed down on him. There was no way I could help him. Moreover I later learned that he was not only badly injured, but even one of his legs was cut off in the crash. However, I still feel guilty that I couldn’t volunteer to help him at that time. As a small boy, I was afraid I might tumble upon some dead bodies. So I kept quiet and I still feel guilty when I think about it now. When I looked up, I noticed that the light was on. So I turned it off and as soon as I did it, I think God came to my rescue. I had fallen asleep so easily despite all the trauma I had been through. I didn’t notice anything throughout the night. When I woke up in the morning, my brother was dead on his seat and I didn’t know what to do or how to react. I thought I was all alone, at the bottom of that cliff. But soon I heard a voice calling the names of people who were in the car one by one and when he called my name, I managed to shout back. It was Sir Shriman. I think he was as excited as me to know that we were certainly not alone. When he asked me if I was ok, the first thing I told him was that my brother was dead. But he comforted me nicely and advised me to come up to him. He said his backbone might have got broken and that he was not able to stand up. He was lying down wrapped in a quilt that had fortunately rolled with him when the car crashed. I told him that my hands and legs wouldn’t move but he insisted that I should try my best to crawl out of the car and come up to him. Then I slowly lifted myself and tried to open the door but it was jammed. I could not break it open although I hit it with a beer bottle that had rolled to my seat during the crash. I used all the little energy I had but I could not open the door on my side and the other door on the right was completely crashed. So I sprang up and slid off to the back as the door of the dickey had gone. I decided to get down from the dickey but when I looked down, it was facing another stretch of steep cliff. So I tried to crawl out from the side-window of the dickey. As I squeezed myself through the small window of the dickey, I literarily fell off to the ground and writhing with pain, I laid there in silence for sometime. Sir Shriman kept calling me from above and slowly, I started crawling up on my knees and elbows. The driver had a shop and he had done his shopping at Samdrup Jongkhar. So the eatables and beer bottles were scattered everywhere. When I reached where Sir Shriman was lying, he let me take rest for a while and then asked me to get him some to eat and drink. I crawled to the spot where there was a can-fish and I threw it to him but since he was lying face up, he could not catch it. The can flew past him to the other side. I then crawled to his other side and again threw the can to him. This time, he caught it and after punching it with a sharp stone which was within his reach, he drank it with all his might. He was so thirsty and hungry due to a huge loss of blood. I also collected some Wai-Wai noodles, juice bottles and other eatables for two of us. Then he asked me to lie down by his side and he started convincing me to go up to the road and look for help. He told me that nobody knows we have crashed and that we would die of starvation after some days. He told me that I was the only hope for him because he had his backbone injured and that he could not walk. So finally he convinced me that I should crawl up at any cost. After taking a few hours of rest, I began my next phase of ordeal: to climb up the cliff on my knees and elbows. He had advised me to be cautious on the way not to allow any rock or stone roll down because that might crash him to death below. He had also told me that I might find the driver’s dead body on the way because he had seen him jumping out of the car when we crashed. So that made me nervous and scared as well. But I started pulling myself up the steep cliff based on the instructions given by Sir Shriman. On the way, I saw a door of the car, a tire and several bank notes. Although I felt uncomfortable but I picked up a few notes thinking I might need them when I am in the hospital. Meanwhile, Sir Shriman kept calling me and as I was too tired, I sometimes could not answer him. After four long hours, I could finally make it to the top of the cliff, to the edge of the road from where we had fallen down more than twelve hours earlier. Then I started to flag down the passing vehicles but since I could not stand up, no drivers stopped. At last, a truck carrying Gypsum stones pulled aside and asked me what happened. I told him that the car we were travelling in crashed and I have my teacher still alive down below. But he didn’t believe me. He asked me to call out for him and I did. The faint response from below the cliff was enough to urge him to park his truck in an angular position blocking the highway so that he could stop all other vehicles to get help from. In a matter of minutes, a number of vehicles came and the drivers and their assistants initiated the rescue operation. The driver of the truck I had flagged down said he would take me to a military hospital in Dewathang since he was heading down to Samdrup Jongkhar and he asked me to get in. Even he left his Assistant to help in the rescue. On the way, I recognized the school bus of Khaling Higher Secondary School while crossing each other and I immediately informed the truck driver that I know that bus driver. Then he stopped and informed him about the accident. It was the school bus driver who first reached the news to Muenselling Institute and to the family of Sir Shriman. I was taken to Dewathang hospital where I started recovering after a few weeks of treatment. My brother was not as lucky as me. I still miss him. The driver also had not escaped. His body was later recovered from the car later along with other bodies.”
Sir Shriman Gurung:
“I think everybody in the car had dozed off including the driver. I was also half asleep when the driver alerted me that we were crashing. I instantly decided to jump out of the window but when I looked out, the road was nowhere to be seen. I knew the car had already left the road and we were simply flying down the curve cliff. I gave up my life and kept both my hands on my lap. I thought of my family: my five-year-old daughter, a year-old son and my wife. I asked God to bless them and my soul. Suddenly, a loud bang rocked the air and I was thrown out of the window. I got stuck in a small space somewhere towards the base of the cliff and when I looked down, I saw the car was still rolling down. Finally it came to a stop and everything went dead including the engine. I kept calling everybody who was in the car but I got no response. I kept crying for help in the dark. I could hear the faint roar of vehicles passing by above but nobody could hear my desperate call. Whenever the light of some moving vehicles above fell on a spot, I would drag myself to that spot with the hope that they might see me. But that remained only as a wish. At that time, I didn’t know I was so badly hurt as I didn’t feel much pain. So once I even attempted to stand up but I instantly collapsed and had I not managed to catch hold of a shrub, I would have further fallen down to the base of the cliff. The whole night I kept yelling for help and my throat went dry with thirst. Fortunately, I had a quilt wrapped around me by itself as we rolled down the cliff and that helped me a bit in fighting cold because having come from a hot place, I was wearing just a thin t-shirt and a half-pant. Then it began to rain and the quilt began to absorb the rainwater. I squeezed the quilt and drank some water. I was bleeding profusely from my forehead and I was still crying for help. I realized I was going to die a very horrible death. I thought all others have died on impact and now it was me who has to suffer a slow and painful death. I once again gave up my life and asked God to receive my soul. Then suddenly out of the blue, a group of wild cats sprang out of the bushes and surrounded me. They began to lick my forehead from where I was bleeding profusely. I thought I would be now eaten alive by those wild monsters and I gave up my life for the third time. I closed my eyes and played dead with the hope that they might spare me at last. Finally, the cats left after licking every drop of blood from my forehead and coincidentally, the bleeding stopped at once. I wondered if God had come to help me. The next morning after I knew one of my students, Tshering Dorji was also still alive, I was so happy and with great efforts, I convinced him to crawl up to the road to seek help. That was the only viable option at the time. It was he who saved both of us. After almost 24 hours, I was evacuated by a group of volunteers and I was taken to Riserbu hospital. As soon as I reached the hospital, I began to hallucinate. I could see several people squeezing through the door and I would shout at them, but those who were around me told me there was nobody out there. My wife soon joined me in shock. Later, she transferred me to Mongar regional hospital where I underwent a spinal surgery and I began to recover. My backbone had fractured but luckily my spinal cord was still safe. The doctor told me that if I had been late by a few days, I might have become paralyzed. That was the most horrifying experience of my life. I am sad that the driver and two other passengers became the ultimate victims of the crash.”
I was studying in class XI in Khaling at the time of the accident and I got these stories directly from the survivors of the crash after their recovery.