Surat/Mumbai: Gujarat brimmed over with anger and anguish as the bodies of seven Amarnath pilgrims slain by terrorists in Kashmir arrived amid angry protests across the state and calls to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for reprisal.
Terrorists sprayed a bus, which mostly had unsuspecting pilgrims from Gujarat, with bullets, killing seven, including six women, and wounding 19 others in Jammu and Kashmir's Anantnag district on Monday, in the worst attack on the annual pilgrimage since 2001.
A pall of gloom enveloped the airport when an Indian Air Force's Hurcules transport aircraft landed with the bodies, the wounded, and those who miraculously survived the ambush, amid a high alert in the state.
Gujarat, with its long history of communal strife and riots, had burnt in fierce fire of violence whose embers took months to die down when bodies of Sabarmati train burning incident were brought down to Ahmedabad from Godhra in 2002.
Though no violence has been reported from anywhere in the state so far, there were angry protests in various cities and towns, with people burning effigies of 'terror', and demanding that the Modi government "avenge" the killings and punish culprits for the outrage.
Protests were held in Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Surat, Valsad, Mandvi (in Kutch) and Bharuch, among others.
Effigies of 'terror' were burnt in Gandhidham and Mandvi towns in Kutch district and Surat.
Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and his deputy Nitin Patel were present at the airport to receive the victims and survivors.
Distraught families of those killed stoically fought back tears as the bodies were carried out of the aircraft one by one.
Rupani inquired after the condition of those injured in the attack and spoke with those who escaped death by a whisker without getting hit by bullets that looked like raining on them from nowhere in pitch darkness.
Amid the grim and gloomy tales of the attack shone through the story of wisdom and courage of the Muslim driver of the bus--Salim Sheikh--whose quick thinking saved the lives of many.
As terrorists sprinkled the bus with gunfire, the man from Gujarat's Valsad showed exemplary grit and presence of mind as he kept driving even though the owner of the vehicle lay soaked in blood beside him, having taken three bullets.
Driving at break neck speed, Sheikh slammed the brakes only after reaching a military camp, some two kilometres away from the scene of the ambush.
"God gave me strength to save their lives. At around 8 pm yesterday, the terrorists started firing. They kept on firing non-stop from the front," Shaikh, who is being hailed as a hero, said.
"I decided to keep on driving, and ducked to avoid getting hit. I kept on driving until we reached a safe place," the driver told reporters at the airport.
As Sheikh ducked to save himself, three bullets hit the bus owner, Harsh Desai, who was sitting by his side. Though Desai fell down, Sheikh did not lose his cool and kept driving.
"As we were on the way, we heard the sound of bullets like someone was bursting crackers. As we realised it was a terrorist attack, I asked Sheikh to keep driving until we reach a military camp.
"He kept on driving for two kilometres and stopped only after reaching the military camp," Desai said, admiring the courage and composure Sheikh showed in the face of extreme adversity when death lurked just around the corner.
"Terrorists should not be spared. They should be killed as they are killing innocent people," Sheikh demanded.
The driver also earned praise from chief minister Rupani, who said he will recommend Sheikh's name for a bravery award.
"I would like to thank Sheikh and Desai for the way they saved the lives of pilgrims by driving the bus without stopping amidst the firing. Had they stopped there, many more might have been killed. At the behest of the Gujarat government, I thank Sheikh. The Gujarat government will recommend his name for bravery award," Rupani said.
The deceased from Gujarat were identified as - Hasuben Ratilal Patel, Surekhaben and Lakshimiben S Patal from Valsad, Ratan Zeenabhai Patal from Daman, and Prajapati Champaben from Navsari.
The other two deceased belonging to Maharashtra are - Nirmalaben Thakor, a resident of Palghar, and Usha Mohanlal Sonkar of Dahanu.
Pallavi Abhayankar, 55, one of the survivors, said when terrorists opened a hail of fire she felt somebody was bursting firecrackers.
"I first thought they were bursting firecrackers. It was only a few moments later that I realised the horror as I saw my fellow passengers getting hit by the terrorists' bullets and slumping," Abhyankar told PTI in Mumbai.
The homemaker, who also runs music classes, said the bus driver's presence of mind saved many lives. "Had it not been for the driver, the toll would have been more," she said.
"The terrorists fired from the front and the right side of the bus. As a result, most people who died or were injured were those sitting on the right side," she said.
The bus had over 50 pilgrims. Though most of them were from Gujarat, 11 hailed from Maharashtra's Dahanu.
Most of them were asleep when terrorists struck, she said.
Mohanlal Sonkar, husband of Usha Sonkar who was killed in the terror attack, said his wife had called him up on Monday.
"She sounded very happy as this was her first trip to Amarnath. I did not know that the call would be her last," the 58-year-old fruit seller from Dahanu said, tears welling up in his eyes.