In a major accident, 44 people were killed when a private bus fell into a river in Himachal Pradesh's Shimla district on Wednesday, police said. Two people, including the conductor, managed to escape by jumping off the bus as it skidded off the road.
The lone surviving passenger claimed mechanical failure was the cause of the accident.
The bus, with at least 46 people on board, was on its way to Tuini from Vikasnagar town (both in Uttarakhand), via the state, when the bus skidded off the mountain road and fell into Tons river, a tributary of the Yamuna, more than 250 metres below the road.
The accident spot, 12 km from the Uttarakhand border, is near Gumma in Nerva tehsil, some 190 km from the state capital. It is one of the remotest places in the state.
Deputy Commissioner Rohan Thakur confirmed the toll.
He said the cause of the accident was yet to be ascertained and a majority of the victims were from the two states.
"The terrain where the accident occurred is very tough. Without a probe, it's difficult to say whether the accident happened due to human error or mechanical failure," Thakur told IANS over phone from the spot.
The victims included 10 women and three children, he said.
Naresh Chauhan, the only surviving passenger, claimed that one of the leaf springs of the bus snapped just prior to the accident.
"The driver and the conductor got down from the bus when the leaf spring broke down. After inspecting the leaf spring, they continued with the journey," he told police.
He said that at one point when the driver applied the brakes on a turn, the bus tilted.
"Sensing that the bus was about to overturn, I, sitting close to the back door, jumped out," he added.
Superintendent of Police D.W. Negi told reporters in Shimla that the conductor who fled from the accident spot was later apprehended.
He said all the bodies, which were badly mutilated, have been recovered and process was on to identify them.
Eyewitnesses said the administration had a tough time in extracting the bodies of the victims from the mangled remains of the bus, though villagers began the rescue operation even before the authorities could reach the accident spot.
It took hours for rescuers and police to climb down the mountain and bring up the bodies.
Rescue workers said the road where the accident occurred was badly damaged and there was no parapet to prevent the vehicle from rolling down.
State Disaster Response Force teams from Uttarakhand also reached the accident spot for relief and rescue operation.
Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh expressed grief over the accident.
The government has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 50,000 to the next of kin of each victim.