Call it Salim Sheikh Gafoor's sheer presence of mind or quick thinking, but it saved over 50 Amarnath Yatra pilgrims from certain death during a terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir, though he himself attributes his heroism to the Almighty.
"The moments I heard the gunshots, I bent down a bit while holding the steering wheel and pressed the accelerator. It seems God gave me a lot of physical and mental strength and I began driving at around 70-80 km per hour," Sheikh told media persons here on Tuesday while recalling his brush with death along with 50-odd passengers.
"Harshbhai, who was sitting next to me in the bus, was hit by a bullet. The passengers were screaming and asking me to stop the bus. But I didn't, as had I applied the brakes even for a minute, I knew for sure that nobody in the bus, including me, would survive the attack," said the Muslim driver, who has been hailed for saving the 50-odd Amarnath pilgrims.
Expressing sadness over the death of seven pilgrims and injuries to 19 others in the attack on Monday night in Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir, he recalled that each one of the 60-odd pilgrims in the bus was happy after a 'darshan' of Lord Shiva and their visit to Srinagar.
"Unfortunately, it all turned into a tragedy," Sheikh said.
He said he kept on driving for 2-3 km before halting at the nearest military camp. Thereafter, the Army men took over and helped move the victims inside the camp and rushing the injured to nearby hospitals.
It was only after 9.30 p.m., more than an hour after the attack, that Salim called up his own family.
His cousin Javed Mirza told a local Gujarati television channel: "I am proud of him. Though it is sad he could not save seven pilgrims, but he was able to save more than 50 others."
As for getting separated from the security convoy before the attack, Sheikh said: "We started from Srinagar around 4 p.m. in the evening but had to take a two-hour stopover as a bus tyre got punctured. We had otherwise decided to halt at a camp for pilgrims near the military camp."
"Since we got delayed while getting the flat tyre mended, three-four other buses from Uttar Pradesh which were with us drove away with the security while we were left behind," he said.
Sheikh, who spoke to several television channels on arrival in Surat by a special Indian Air Force aircraft along with bodies of the attack victims and survivors, said he could not see how many terrorists attacked the bus since it was already dark.
Condemning the attack, he said he would be happy if the terrorists involved were killed.
"They must be killed. The security forces personnel told us they will kill the terrorists. We are now waiting for the good news. I will be able to experience peace, sleep well and eat only on receiving the good news (of the killing of terrorists)," he said.
He said it was not the first time but his fifth trip to the holy cave of Amarnath, driving pilgrims on behalf of Om Travels of Valsad in south Gujarat.
The tour began on July 2 and the pilgrims were scheduled to travel to Amarnath and the shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi in Trikuta hills of Jammu and Kashmir, before returning to Valsad.
He said he had ferried the passengers for 'darshan' at the Amarnath cave on July 8 and was driving towards Katra on the fateful evening.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, who reached Surat airport to receive the bodies of the victims in the afternoon, was all praise for Sheikh and said his government would recommend his name for a bavery award to the Centre.
"I don't know about that (bravery award) but driving is the only thing I know and only source of income for me. What else can I do? I will continue driving the bus. But for now, the scene (of the attack) keeps playing in front of my eyes," he said.
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