Witnessing an accident along a road or highway can be a harrowing experience for the onlooker — fear, shock, concern and anxiety are part and parcel of it. These were the same emotions that Pankaj Kumar Tarai from Paradip in Odisha was overcome with when he saw an accident in 2005.
A truck driver by profession, Pankaj was driving from Bhutamundai on the Cuttack-Paradip State Highway when he saw a crowd gathered along the road. He stopped by to inquire about the incident.
“A truck had hit a motorcycle, gravely injuring the two passengers. Both were bleeding profusely, with one having suffered a head injury while another had severed a leg,” he recalls.
“Looking at the injuries, everyone thought it was too late. I desperately wanted to help and offered assistance, but no one volunteered to support me. A few minutes later, both succumbed to their injuries,” Pankaj (38) tells The Better India.
The incident left him emotionally scarred, he says. It changed his approach in life, and he has since dedicated himself to saving the lives of hundreds of accident victims on the state highway.
A guardian angel
Recalling the incident, Pankaj says, “I could have saved the accident victims if I could provide timely medical care. But I couldn’t have helped them alone. I felt helpless and disheartened. After the incident, I decided to help all accident victims and try saving their lives,” he says.
Pankaj left no stone unturned to rush to accident spots and help the victims. “I started reaching out to people whenever there was an incident. Slowly, as my work started gaining recognition, residents started reaching out to me and escorting me to accident spots. I called for an ambulance or personally took victims to the hospital if needed,” he says.
He says he understands the importance of crucial time after the accident and acts immediately. “I drop everything at hand at that moment as reaching on time is important. Every minute lost reduces the chances of saving a person, especially if they are in a critical condition,” he adds.
Pankaj also provides the service free of cost. “I do not charge any person I help. Firstly, I call an ambulance from a government or private hospital, which takes about ten minutes to reach. Sometimes, I pay from my pocket or seek help from friends for the treatment. In one instance, a surgery required Rs 70,000. The victim did not have any parents or relatives and could not afford treatment. Hence, I pooled the money for his medical expenses,” he notes.
Pankaj stays with the victims until any of their family members arrive.
He says that as he helped more victims, his work gained recognition among residents of the area, and they started reaching out to him. “Many learned that I come for help and know how to handle the emergency with the presence of mind. Police, volunteers and locals started asking for my help,” he says, adding that eventually, it became part of the drill to call him alongside emergency services.
“Accidents occur almost every day on the highway, amounting to an average of 25 in a month. On December 1 itself, there were three accidents on a single day, and I assisted in all of them,” he explains.
Today, he covers about a 50 km stretch of the highway. “I get calls every time there is a major incident on the highway. Information reaches sooner with the help of technology compared to earlier years when I started the initiative,” he says.
So far, Pankaj has helped 400 accident victims, of which 300 have survived, he says.
In one such incident, Pankaj saved the life of one Kamal Sahu, a government employee from Cuttack. “The accident occurred in May 2021 while I was travelling to Paradip for official work. My bike crashed into a water tank. I was lying on the road after the accident, and the crowd kept clicking pictures of me rather than helping. It was Pankaj who arrived 15 minutes later and called for medical help,” he says.
“The doctor informed me that I had fractured my spinal cord and timely treatment helped me recover from the severe injury. I owe my life to him,” he adds.
Pankaj says there is nothing wrong with the condition of the road on the highway, but the problem is the speed of the commuters. “The road is in a great condition and drivers tend to speed on the highway. I have identified some spots where accidents occur often and reported to authorities to install reflectors, lights and other safety measures,” he shares.
Inspired by such a valuable contribution to the social cause, many friends and locals expressed interest in assisting Pankaj. “Many people ask me to inform them when I learn about an accident so they can volunteer to help. However, there is little or no time to inform others and collectively reach the spot. Hence, we have created a WhatsApp group recently, where about 30 members help and co-ordinate at various levels including the authorities to help the accident victims,” he says.
Ranjitdas Mahapatra, one of the volunteers and Pankaj’s friend, says, “Pankaj is an asset for the community as he never refuses to help any victim. People who have survived because of his timely intervention consider him no less than god.”
He says that Pankaj’s act is entirely selfless. “He spends about 25 per cent of his income. At times when cash and gold items worth lakhs of rupees have been found from the vehicles of accident victims, Pankaj has honestly returned it to the owner or the police,” Ranjitdas adds.
‘Need more saviours’
Pankaj has moved away from driving and entered another business, but wants to continue helping more victims. “We are an informal group. Many organisations show appreciation for my work with awards, but few offer monetary support. I feel the need to set up an NGO and seek procedural guidance. Treating or attending to so many patients requires an expense of at least Rs 50,000 a month. If I cannot afford the treatment, I request the members of our WhatsApp group to seek financial help. Recently, a friend from Dubai sent money for treating a patient,” he says.
He hopes that setting up an NGO will help arrange the required funds and benefit the victims immediately. “I would also be able to buy an ambulance to provide immediate assistance rather than calling and waiting for one,” Pankaj says.
Pankaj also works to create awareness among people and explain the importance of the golden hour. The time is a crucial period after an accident that can prevent death by providing immediate and appropriate medical care. “Many still refrain from helping the victims, and some have started realising the need to save precious human lives,” he says.
The saviour says he will continue doing the work until needed. “I’m glad that many people have realised the need by observing my work and coming in support of accident victims. The initiative will probably continue to inspire many more for the cause even after my death,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu