Torrential rains are not the only reason hampering search operations in Mahad, the strong water currents of the Savitri river have been an equally strong deterrent. According to experts of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the river water is flowing fast, at about ten times the normal rate.
Anupam Shrivastav, Commandant, 5th Battalion, NDRF, said, “The swollen river is currently flowing at a speed of 40-50 kilometers per hour (kmph). The normal rate is about 5-10 kmph.” Most part of the state have received heavy rains over the past few days. Experts said that the Savitri river was flowing at higher level and faster than normal.
While highly trained and specialised disaster rescue squads are involved in search operations, even they found it extremely difficult to navigate the river. Among the teams of the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and NDRF are men who have saved lives from several severely flooded rivers, collapsed buildings and ships marooned in stormy seas. But with the Savitri though, they have come to an impasse.
“Hum ne jugaadu tareeka bhi try kar liya. Pata nahi aur kya bacha. Nothing seems to work,” said an NDRF officer on Saturday morning amidst a light drizzle.
Consider this. When initial signs pointed that at least one of the two missing state transport buses may be sitting on the riverbed just a few metres from the broken bridge, a 300 kilogram magnet was lowered into the water. But the river current was so strong that it would have carried the magnet away with it had it not been held firm by iron cables and a heavy duty crane.
“We asked for a 600 kilogram magnet but that too was being pushed by the current,” said Shrivastav.He added that the magnets had stuck to a water pipeline in the river. “If that pipe had broken during the operation, locals residents would have been inconvenienced,” he said.
The NDRF has also attempted using its victim locator camera, which had a rotating head, but the water is too muddy to receive clear images. “We could use thermal sensors, but there is no heat in a drowned body. There is no technology available that will detect a human body in water,” he said.
After drawing a blank on August 3, the first day of the rescue operation, fourteen bodies were recovered the following day. But heavy rains restricted specialised operations on August 5, leaving the NDRF to experiment with local techniques.
In varying degrees, the use of smaller magnets, fishing nets and fish finders have been put to use but have failed to produce the desired results. “On August 4, locals tied small nets at the base of Dadli bridge to catch floating bodies, but they became entangled. Bigger nets are being used today,” Shrivastav said.
In spite of varying distances at which the river has thrown up bodies, authorities coordinating the operation remain optimistic of discovering the vehicles within one kilometre of the site of the tragedy.
“The spot we want to search is just 700 meters from the site. But the current is the strongest there. Local fishermen and mud dredgers say that there is a depression of about sixty feet so there is a good chance that the vehicles may be stuck there,” Shrivastav said.
The motion of the river also complicates the search. A small stretch of land forks the river just ahead of the depression, causing the water there to churn in a large circle. “It is like a whirlpool. We would like to send our divers in there but that requires a boat to be anchored and for the water to be still. But when a 600 kilo magnet is being tossed around, what chance does a 60-kilo diver have?”
The strong river current also forced the NDRF to discard methods that worked well for them in the Mandakini during 2014 Uttarakhand floods. “It is being suggested to us to deploy fibre boats with 40 horsepower engines and not the rubber ones with 25 hp engines. Here we found that the rubber boats are coping better with the current,” Shrivastav admitted. He explained that with their flat surface, the rubber boats rose and fell in time with the current. “The fibre boats have been built keeping aerodynamics in mind,” Shrivastav said.
Four days given search teams plenty of time to study the river. “The Savitri goes this way and that. The water will push the vehicles to one bend but the pressure will force them out and into the next bend. By now, the bus windows must have shattered and the buses must have been weighed down by mud,” he continued.
Camping on the Poladpur side of the bridge, Shrivastav has one eye fixed to the southeast, where the river originates at Mahabaleshwar.
“We are afraid of the rainwater coming from Mahabaleshwar. The water rushes down from the mountain. There is not much that can be done unless the river recedes and the rains stop,” he said.