As a review of pupil safety gets underway after the bus crash tragedy, which left three dead and dozens injured, the question is whether it could have been avoided, reports Kate Ginn
They had put the lives of their children in someone else’s hands. The parents of the youngsters from the Pakistan School Muscat (PSM) assumed, quite rightly, that their sons and daughters would be safe.
The pupils who boarded the allegedly overcrowded bus last Wednesday morning had also placed their trust in the driver, believing that he would deliver them safely to school.
All of them were let down.
From the crushed wreckage later taken from the scene on the back of a recovery lorry, it was clear the consequences would be devastating.
Three young lives were lost.
Awais Nazir, nine, was in class four, a sharp and well-behaved student, who was described by his teacher as ‘one of my favourites’. Sayyid Fahad, 10, was a fifth-grader and brilliant student. He had been so excited last month when the class went on a trip to the circus visiting Muscat.
The funeral service of both boys was held in the ROP Hospital Mosque last Thursday. Their bodies were then flown back to Pakistan.
Fareeha Parvez, 16, was the eldest victim. She was due to be married next month and was, according to friends, ‘very excited’ about the forthcoming wedding in Pakistan.
Her distraught mother is reportedly inconsolable. “She hasn’t stopped crying ever since she heard the news. She is not able to come to terms with the death of her daughter,” said a friend.
One can only imagine what private agonies the parents of these children are going through. The guilt, the inner turmoil and the anger must be almost overwhelming.
Two other students remain critical in Khoula Hospital. Dozens of others suffered minor injuries.
Now questions are being asked as to who or what was to blame for the tragic accident in which the private school bus travelling from Mabela overturned around 7am after hitting a rubbish collection truck in Qurum near Petroleum Development Oman (PDO).
Reports suggest that the bus was overloaded, carrying 36 or 38 children in a vehicle with a capacity for only 25.
If true, the pupils would have been tightly packed inside, jostling for space and probably fighting for one of the window seats. There would have been only subdued chatter – many of the pupils were sleeping (it’s a two-hour journey in total). They would have woken to the sound of metal crunching into metal, followed by screams as the bus turned over three times. Some managed to escape out of the open windows, crawling through broken glass to safety.
“When I woke up, I saw the bus had toppled over and I found myself hanging in the air holding one of the iron rods of the bus,” said Mohammad Kabeer Umer, of Class X-A.
As news of the accident spread on social media, frantic parents rushed to the hospital, unaware whether their child was safe or not, to be met by scenes of chaos.
“It is a sad day for all of us,” said Muhammad Saeed Khan, chairman of the Pakistani Social Club, echoing the thoughts of many.
The bus carrying the children was unregulated, as all private buses are. Many parents have no choice but to send their children to school in these unchecked vehicles. Government schools, on the other hand, have strict high standards of transport safety.
Safety campaigners say that uniform laws on school transport are urgently required to prevent another tragedy happening.
“School bus transportation and drivers are not regulated by law in any significant way,” says Bernadette Bhacker-Millard, an Omani lawyer and co-founder of Sustainability, which is involved in road safety initiatives.
“Any Omani over the age of 18 years is eligible to drive a school bus or other utility vehicle (taxi) provided he possesses a ‘light’ driving licence.
“There are no specific requirements or training that an applicant must satisfy in order to quality as a bus driver.”
Regulated training and minimum experience requirements for drivers are vital, she adds. The driver of the PSM bus was experienced and had apparently been driving the school bus for some years.
Y spoke to an accident research and safety expert who is working with the government on a long-term strategy to improve the country’s appalling record on the roads – we have the highest death rate from road accidents in the GCC.
He said that the issue of school buses was already being looked at, with proposals for change being drawn up, before the bus crash.
Unconfirmed reports have claimed speeding was a factor in the crash, with figures of 90km/h being mentioned. Sources claim that the 32-year-old driver was allegedly fiddling with his mobile phone in the moments before the accident.
As the investigation continues, a review of the safety of thousands of pupils is starting with the Indian, Bangladesh and Pakistan school authorities collaborating on ways to protect children on the journey to class.
“We will have to discuss the issue in detail and chalk out plans to ensure the safety of our students while being ferried by transporters,” said Tonny George Alexander, the chairman of Indian schools’ board of directors, which had a meeting.
Meanwhile, the children travelling in the PSM bus from Mabela who escaped injury are to be given free transport until March. There are plans to move them to a new school in Seeb, closer to their homes, from the new academic year in April.
“We will ensure those children are reaching school and returning home safely,” says PSM principal, Muhammad Zakriya Babur.
Unfortunately, for Awais, Sayyid and Fareeha, it is too late.