SLTB bus bomb blast heroes say they will keep on work ing

By Himal Kotelawala, Pic by J. Weerasekera and Berty Mendis.

Last Tuesday afternoon, the timely action of a bus conductor and a bus driver helped save about 40 passengers from certain death or serious injury when a bomb exploded on an SLTB bus, No. 155, plying between Mattakkuliya and Moratuwa. The bus was in the vicinity of the Town Hall when the parcel was detected.

Some 40 passengers were travelling on the SLTB bus that was destroyed in the blast. The bomb was detected by the bus conductor.

As soon as the bus conductor noticed the unattended parcel, he informed the driver, who then immediately swung into action. The bus was taken to a spot away from the heavy afternoon traffic and the passengers were told to disembark. A few minutes later a bomb exploded, completely destroying the bus.

The driver, Ranjith Thilakasiri, told The Sunday Times that his immediate reaction on being told about the suspect parcel was to evacuate the bus and take the vehicle as far away as possible from the public.

“When I saw the endless line of vehicles in front of me and the scores of schoolchildren walking about, I had no time to think of my own safety. I have children of my own, so I gave first priority to taking the bus to a safe location,” he said.The bus conductor, Manjula Udayanga, who is still in a state of shock after the incident, said that he and Mr. Thilakasiri were walking away from the parked bus, and had gone only 10 steps, when the bomb went off.

Mr. Thilakasiri recalls thinking that, whether the parcel contained a bomb or not, the first thing to do was find a place to park the bus so the passengers could be safely evacuated. He said the passengers started to panic when they heard about the parcel and demanded that the bus be halted. They disembarked the moment the vehicle was stopped on Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. “The passengers hurriedly picked up their stuff and got off, even before we could ask them to. Mothers carried their children. There were two schoolchildren on the bus,” Mr. Udayanga said.

The driver Mr. Thilakasiri alerted two traffic police officers on duty at a nearby roundabout as he drove the bus towards Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. There was a time lapse of about 10 minutes between the detection of the parcel and the explosion.

Driver Thilakasiri and conductor Udayanga

“The explosion was very loud,” the conductor Mr. Udayanga said. “We saw pieces of the bus flying off. I thought we would be hit by the flying metal. The ticket machine slipped from my hands. I just stood there. My legs had gone numb.” Seconds after the blast a huge crowd had gathered.

Mr. Udayanga and Mr. Thilakasiri were taken to the Cinnamon Gardens police station to give their statements. Their families were informed about the incident only much later.

“My wife and children knew about the bus bomb blast only in the evening, when they saw the news on TV,” Mr. Udayanga said.

Although the experience has been traumatic for both men, neither Mr. Udayanga nor Mr. Thilakasiri have any idea of giving up their SLTB jobs. “I have been with the SLTB from the time I started working,” said driver Mr. Thilakasiri. “I have done this job for many years. I have only four years to go before retirement. I have no intention of quitting.”

The younger Mr. Udayanga, a resident of Mawanella, says he spends his entire work day on buses. He said he realised the potential dangers of his job as a bus conductor, given the current situation, but added that Tuesday’s blast was not going to force him to change jobs.

Driver Mr. Thilakasiri said credit for saving the passengers went entirely to Mr. Udayanga, who spotted the parcel and took immediate action.

“It is because of him that we are alive today,” he said. “He was the one who stood near the bomb. All credit goes to him.”

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