As the bodies of fishermen Xavier Louis, 57, and Christy Selvadasan, 51, lie in coffins in the aisle of St Thomas Catholic church in Poonthura, in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, outside, a group of women huddled under a makeshift shelter feverishly count the rosary beads wrapped around their fingers. Occasionally, one of them would let out an anguished wail — “God, give back our men from the sea” — drowning out the priest’s prayers inside.
Selvi, 42, is among them. Her husband Xavier, 42, had gone fishing in a small boat on Wednesday night with a few other men from the village. He hasn’t returned yet. “She has been here since Friday. Her husband was the family’s bread- winner. He had to go fishing every day for the family to eat something,’’ says Besty, Selvi’s relative. Metres away, Selvi’s five children squeal as they chase each other on the sandy beach.
The fishing village of Poonthura has been waiting for its men since Thursday, when cyclone Ockhi battered the southern coast of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, leaving hundreds of fishermen who had ventured into the sea on Wednesday stranded.
While 435 fishermen have been rescued in the last three days, 99 are still reportedly missing, 30 of them from Poonthura. However, the control room set up by the state government to monitor rescue operations said 117 fishermen from the state were still missing. With two bodies being recovered so far, Poonthura is bracing for the worst, with family members of those missing turning up at the church to share each other’s grief.
The fishermen of Poonthura either go in small mechanised country boats or the big trawlers. While the country boats, with five or six men on board, usually venture into the sea every afternoon and return early next morning, the large boats spend days at sea. Most of the missing fishermen from Poonthura are those who went in the smaller boats.
They had ventured into the sea on Wednesday evening and since they were slated to return early the following morning, most of them had only taken a meal each and a few litres of water.
Joseph Kennedy, a boat owner, says, “It will be difficult to survive the storm for more than 48 hours in the sea. If they stay conscious, they can survive by clutching on to the vessel wreckage. But if they lose consciousness, the chances of survival are very slim,’’ he says. Kennedy, 53, owns two boats and had sent both into the sea. “Thirty two of my men went in six boats, including mine. Of them, 17 could be saved and we are still trying to locate the others,’’ he says.
Rajesh K, 42, says he is lucky to be alive. “I did not go fishing on Wednesday because I had to attend a function in the church. We haven’t seen the sea this angry in a long time,’’ he says. Priest Deepak Anto says the villagers have decided to set off on search operations on Sunday morning. “If everything else fails, our men will leave in small groups, in 60 mechanised country boats. But frankly, there isn’t much hope. Only the luckiest will survive this situation,’’ he says.
So far, the death toll from the cyclone has gone up to seven in Kerala, with five bodies being fished out from the sea on Saturday. At least 47 fishermen, who were rescued, have been admitted to the Thiruvananthapuram medical college. State Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma said, “The rescue operations will continue on Sunday. We have decided to conduct an intensive search from Thiruvananthauram to Kochi.’’ She said she was hopeful of more fishermen being rescued.
The state government has announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to each of the families of the victims. Fishermen who had lost their vessels and fishing nets in the tragedy would also be compensated.