Bus driver’s bravery averted bigger disaster

The Kataragama –Buttala Road was re-opened yesterday after a temporary closure following Friday’s terrorist attack on a passenger bus along the road. With the Kataragama Esala Maha Perahera just days away, thousands of devotees are using this road to join in the religious rituals.

Many of those affected by Friday’s shooting, that killed four people and injured 26, too were on their way to Kataragama for the Perehera when they fell victim to the terrorist attack.

The incident has prompted the Police and Army to set up joint checkpoints in addition to the bunkers that were in place before. In addition people using this road would be searched DIG Southern Province Jagath Abeysirigunawardena said.

The damaged bus

Devotees who enter the Katargama Devalaya too will be subject to thorough checks, he said. The LTTE’s brazen ambush on the bus took place in spite of the heavy security presence that was already in place. This is the latest in a spate of attacks carried out along this road targeting both military personnel as well as civilians since the beginning of this year.

The road had been closed for three months after the initial attacks and had re-opened only in April after security had been strengthened in the area. Bunkers were put up along the road and several hundred army, police and civil defence force personnel were assigned on duty.

Among the victims of Friday’s shooting were two women and a child. Many of the passengers had been heading to Kataragama too participate in the annual Esala Maha Perahera. W.Gunawathie of Gangodagama was one such passenger. She suffered a gun shot injury to her hand in the attack and is undergoing treatment at the Hambantota Hospital.

“We were told by many that it would be dangerous to travel on this road this year. But we come for the Perahera every year and we were determined to do the same this year too,” she said. Seeing the heavy presence of security and police personnel along the road had also helped allay some of the fears she had initially entertained when embarking on the journey.

“When we approached the Galge area, I noticed two people dressed in military-like uniform with handkerchiefs over their faces on top of a tree and two others on the road side. They suddenly started firing indiscriminately at the bus. We started screaming and then we realized that the driver was hit in his hand. However he did not stop the bus in spite of his injuries. If not for him, we would all be dead,” Gunawathie said.

Yesterday’s scene of intensified security checks in Kataragama. Pix by K. Devapriya

V.G.Siriyawathie said they took this route because they were assured that there would be no threat of terrorist attacks. “There were around 75 people on this bus. When the firing started many got onto the floor. I got a bullet in my hand. It is due to our driver’s bravery that we are alive today,” she said.

The driver of the bus K.W.D.Chandrasiri was initially in a state of shock when the firing started but when Police Constable R.M.S.A.Bandaranaike and two other security men who were also in the bus had shouted “Tigers are shooting, drive on without stopping,” he had stepped on the accelerator and not looked back.

He did not stop the bus till he reached the Kataragama Hospital. It was this decision that saved many lives. Police believe the terrorists plan would have been to first shoot at the driver hoping to kill him and then board the bus and shoot dead the passengers.

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