Ramesh Walunj was praying at a temple overlooking the sea on Saturday morning when he heard screams for help from the direction of the Bandra Fort below. Losing no time but not forgetting his just-packed tiffin box, the 40-year-old rushed down the steps and raced on the slippery rocks on to the edge of a small cliff where he was told that three girls had fallen into the water while taking a selfie on their phones.
The girls are residents of Baiganwadi in Govandi and had studied together until Class 12. Tarannum Ansari (18) had since joined SNDT College in Ghatkopar, while Anjum Khan (19) and Masturi Khan (19) studied at Mehta College in Chembur and Rajiv Gandhi College in Navi Mumbai respectively.
“They planned to go to Bandra Fort on Saturday morning. They walked to the edge of the rocks and were taking pictures when a large wave hit them from behind. The girls lost balance and fell,” said Ramachandran Dhawale, senior inspector, Bandra police station. He added that while Tarannum and Anjum fell into the water, Masturi did not and she tried to help them get out. By then, Dhawale added, Ramesh had arrived and helped Masturi pull out Anjum.
Eyewitnesses say Ramesh was the only one among the onlookers who went into the water after Tarannum, while others watched on. “The third girl had been washed some 15 feet away from the shore. Ramesh is a good swimmer and reached her but once she grabbed hold of him, the tide swept them away,” said Ramesh’s neighbour Raju Makwana.
The police version is different, however, and states that Ramesh swam some distance, but turned when he couldn’t spot her and he was washed away by a wave.
The police reached the spot past 11 am, some 15 minutes after Ramesh was last seen and could only identify him using the wallet that he had left behind with his clothes and lunch box. “They found his driving licence inside and came to our house,” said Suresh Sawant, a maternal uncle who had met Ramesh just 10 minutes before he went to the temple.
Initially, two Mumbai Police boats and fishing trawlers were pressed into the search and rescue operations, but by 4 pm, a Coast Guard helicopter had also been called in.
While the search operation was called off later due to fading light, Chief Fire Officer of the Mumbai Fire Brigade Prabhat Rahangdale said it would resume on Sunday. “It is a very rocky and dangerous beach where people sit despite warnings not to do so. We will continue the operations to find the missing persons,” he said. Another fire brigade official added the stretch of sea between Worli and Santacruz was being searched, though chances of finding Tarannum and Ramesh alive were minimal.
Anjum was admitted to the ICU at Bhabha Hospital and discharged at 6.30 pm after being given first aid and treated for shock, the police said. The police recorded statements of Anjum and Masturi and allowed them to go home.
Ramesh, a resident of Jaffar Baba Colony, a hilltop slum overlooking the Bandra Worli Sea Link, worked was a driver with a family living at Bandstand. Accustomed to leaving home at 8.30 am, he was told by his employer on Saturday morning to report to work a few hours late.
“He left home at 10.30 am after I packed his lunch box. But since he had time on his hands, he went to the temple to sit there for some time,” said Ramesh’s distraught wife Kalpana. He leaves behind daughters Raveena (16) and Mansi (14) and son Hriday, who will turn three years in April. A natural swimmer like many of his neighbours, Ramesh was the sort of man who helped out in a crisis, neighbours say.
“He has saved two lives but we have lost the only earning member of our family,” wailed his sister, Jayashree Chavan.
Ramesh only took the trail atop the fort and out its gate to reach Bandstand on days when he was late to work. Another neighbour Pushpa Kajule recalled running into Ramesh only 24 hours before the incident.
“He was holding his tiffin box and running down the steps. He told me he was late for work. I can’t believe I had such a normal conversation with him only a day ago,”