In teastalls, village squares and betel shops of Kendrapara, young men often sit around in groups and talk about moving out. They talk of life in the big city, of the neighbour who has gone to Mumbai or an acquaintance who has come back from Hyderabad. The ones who finally make that journey usually do plumbing and masonry jobs, serving as the faceless nuts and bolts of the big city. “It’s a rite of passage here. If you come across a plumber in any Indian city or even some of the Gulf countries, chances are that he will be from Kendrapara,” says B B Nayak, principal of State Institute for Plumbing Training (SIPT) at Pattamundai, Kendrapara.
Like them, sometime in 2004, a wiry youth left his home in Rajapur village, in Rajanagar block of Kendrapara, for his aunt’s home in Delhi in search of a better future. A decade later, Prakash Rout, the son of a farmer couple, arrived in Chennai, where he worked as a plumber on a 12-storey building that was coming up in the Moulivakkam area. Rout was part of a team of plumbers who were tasked with laying a maze of water pipelines in the building. On June 28, the building, called ‘The Faith’, went down and the 25-year-old remained trapped for three days before rescuers finally pulled him out on July 1. His first question to his rescuers was: “Where are my slippers?”
Shaken, Rout is now back home in Kendrapara. Of the 61 labourers who died in the building collapse, three were his friends from Orissa. “I miss Amar very much,” he says of one of them. Rout now nurses a fractured right arm. While he says he broke it in the mishap, M K Verma, Commandant of the 4th Battalion of NDRF who led the Chennai rescue operation, says there was no such injury when he was rescued.
After a quick lunch, Rout and his fellow workers had just resumed work on the 7th floor on June 28 when he heard a sound that continues to haunt him. “It was like hundred bamboo stems cracking at the same time. Before I knew what was happening, the floor had caved in,” says Rout.
He plunged almost 70 feet down from the 7th floor in a rain of concrete slabs and iron. When he landed, the debris piled up on him and he had less than three inches of space around him. He screamed but his voice didn’t travel beyond the debris.
“It was pitch dark inside. I stopped thinking about my friends Amar and Nana. After some time, I stopped trying to move, fearing it would trigger another collapse.” That night, he says, he did not feel hungry, only thirsty. Outside, he could hear the rain. An iron rod streamed in the rain water and Rout, desperate to quench his thirst, lapped up the water droplets.
For the next two days he kept thinking it would be the last day of his life. He stopped crying for help and didn’t care to find out if it was morning or night. Delirious with thirst, he peed in his palm and gulped it trying hard not to throw up. Exhausted, he fell asleep.
Help came on the morning of July 1 when sniffer dog Rustam started barking near a small hole on a concrete slab. At 9 am, the rescue team sent cameras inside which caught Rout alive and breathing. The rescue team kept chipping away at the concrete till an opening could be made. And then, they finally pulled him out.
On a humid afternoon last week at his mudhouse in Rajapur, Rout betrayed no emotions of someone who had seen death up close. But his family says the accident has left him scarred. “At night, he wakes up screaming for help. The other evening, he had gone to relieve himself when the bamboo grass swayed and creaked. He screamed and ran, saying the debris were falling on him,” says Rout’s brother Goutam.
“When he sleeps at night, we have to tie his legs to the cot as he tosses up and down screaming,” says his mother Laxmi.
Would he ever work in a building again? “Not Chennai. I will probably go to Hyderabad after my right arm heals. We have to work. There is nothing for us here in Kendrapara.”