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|May 8, 2000|
'I believe Puneet is on a vacation and will be back soon'
Days after a student suspended by Columbia University was struck and killed by an Amtrak train as he walked on the tracks ignoring repeated whistles, his friends are still recovering from the shock.
A week ago they held a candlelight vigil for Puneet Bhandari, 21. They joined hands and sat around in a circle. They took turns in talking about the enthusiasm, vigor and liveliness Puneet symbolized for them.
"The news was an utter shock to me. I still have trouble believing it," said Srikanth Krishnamachari, who knew Bhandari for three years.
"He was a great guy. He had this energy... he could reach out to anybody. He had a lot going for him. He had a bright future."
These sentiments echo throughout Bhandari's circle of friends.
Bhandari died on April 20, a week after The New York Times reported that he was suspended for two years for lying to a professor in order to secure extra time to finish his assignments.
A pre-med student, Bhandari, had lied to his contemporary civilization teacher that his brother had met with a car accident. A few days later he told his professor that his brother had died.
Bhandari was granted extra time and he finished the course.
At the interview for medical school, he was asked about his brother and Bhandari replied that he was an investment banker. The interviewer cross-checked with his professor and found that Bhandari was lying. Disciplinary proceedings were initiated against him.
Bhandari had only a few months to go until graduation. He appealed in a court but the judge denied his request. Despondent, he walked on the tracks.
A spokeswoman for Amtrak, Karen Dunn said Bhandari had the opportunity to get off the tracks but "made no attempt to do so."
Several of his friends traveled to his North Brunswick, New Jersey, home for his funeral and to reach out to his parents, his two brothers and one sister.
Most still have difficulty in using the past tense when referring to Bhandari.
"Puneet is someone with curiosity, motivation, an open mind... he initially seems overly excited, overly affectionate, and too much in a good mood to be for real. But those who knew him learned that unbelievable as he seemed, those passions really were for real," said Berrick Chang, who grew up with him.
Sudhir Rani, a high-school friend, said he keeps thinking Bhandari is on a vacation and will be back soon.
"He had this great smile -- ear to ear. He understood people and he could reach out to them, especially when they were feeling down," Rani said.
Another high-school friend Naveen Sikka said the punishment did not fit the crime and he was disappointed by the school's handling of the situation.
"They need to view protocol in dealing with students who are under heavy pressure. There is a need for a safety net for students who need help. There are a lot of inconsistencies in the way the school handled Puneet's case," Sikka said.
He was always willing to go the extra mile with his infectious energy, said Shefali Desai.
Other friends console themselves with the thought that Puneet has found peace, finally.
"He was a phenomenal person with a beautiful soul. His name means 'pure' and that's what he was," said Laura Zupa.
"It's still tough dealing with his being gone. He was larger than life and it's just hard to think I won't see him anymore," said Zupa.
She shares a memory. "One day, Puneet, who was extremely well-read, and I were having a religious discussion. And he quoted a verse from Samuel that I can never forget. He said: 'The Lord doesn't look at the things man looks at. Man looks outward and the Lord looks at your heart.'
"I wish he had thought of that when he was going through the difficult time."
Bhandari's family has decided not to make any comments on their son's tragic death and have asked school officials to refrain from discussing the case, said Virgil Renzulli, spokesman for the university.
The University released a short statement from the dean of the College Austin Quigley. It read: "The faculty, students and staff were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Puneet Bhandari. On behalf of the Columbia community, I wish to express our deepest sympathy to his friends and family."
The lawyer for Bhandari's family, Arthur Block, could not be reached despite repeated phone calls. In The New York Times and the Columbia University newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, Block said the university should have treated his client's case as a "psychological plea for help rather than an academic discipline proceeding".
There is only speculation about why Bhandari fabricated the story of his brother's death and he apparently told one friend he didn't know why he did it.
According to an excerpt from the court documents, published in the school newspaper, Bhandari said his "tears were real".
"I accept (the) perception that my episodes of crying along with the untrue story about my brother's injury and death were planned performances," he wrote.
"But I want you to know that I was really crying (something I rarely do) out of deep upset. Just what it was about, I may never know."
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