At least 44 people were killed and 34 others suffered serious injuries on Thursday after a private bus fell into a gorge in Banjar area of Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, around 250 km from here, officials said.

Chief Minister Jairam Thakur has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident.

Additional SP of Kullu Raj Kumar said the accident took place at around 4 pm near Bhiyoth in Banjar area of Kullu district when the private bus was on its way to Gadagushaini. The ill-fated bus fell into a 500-feet gorge.

Police said most of the passengers were college students who were returning home. The bus was overcrowded as it was carrying many passengers, including some sitting on the rooftop of the bus.

Locals were the first to reach the accident spot and they rescued the passengers from the mangled remains of the bus.

Prima facie, it seems that overloading and negligent driving may have caused the accident, Banjar Patwari Sheetal Kumar said.

The Kullu Additional SP said the injured were undergoing treatment at the Banjar Civil Hospital and the Kullu district hospital. Most of the victims were residents of various areas in Kullu district. Some of the severely injured passengers have been shifted to PGI Chandigarh, he added.

Police sources said it appears that the driver failed to negotiate a sharp curb, resulting in the bus falling into the gorge.

A case of negligent and rash driving has been registered and further investigations to find out the exact cause behind the accident are on.

Himachal Pradesh governor Acharya Devvrat and chief minister Jai Ram Thakur expressed grief over the accident.

The CM has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident, an official said, adding that Thakur also asked the administration to provide best possible medical care to the injured passengers. He also asked the district administration to provide all possible help in rescue and relief measures.

Earlier in April, ten people were killed and 25 injured when a private bus they were travelling in fell into a 200-feet-deep gorge in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district.

Himachal witnesses an average of 3,000 road accidents each year killing over 1,000 people, according to government reports. Bad condition of roads, adverse weather and human errors leave Himachal prone to accidents.

Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLIFE Foundation said, “It’s a shame that mass-casualty bus crashes have become a norm in India, especially in hilly states like Himachal Pradesh.”

“The state government must immediately order a summary audit of all roads, and engineers and contractors responsible for missing basic installations like crash barriers must be booked for causing countless deaths and injuries,” he said.