Standing on the banks of the Damodar in Bokaro district on Friday evening, Gangu Kewar had no doubt that the 10 youths on the concrete platform would live to tell the tale. “I would have worried if there were only two or three of them. Here, the older boys seemed to be constantly talking to the younger ones and they all stuck together. We did our part too by shouting words of encouragement,” Gangu said.
Gangu, who lives in Panchora basti of Chas block, was the first one to spot the teens and youths when he went for a bath. “It must have been around 1 in the afternoon. The boys were on and around the platform near the check dam. As soon as I entered the river, I understood that the water from the dam was on its way.
“I shouted to the boys, asking them to rush to either bank, but they did not realise how serious it could get. Soon, the water was upon us,” said Gangu, who belongs to a caste of fishermen and sometimes catches fish in the river.
The 10 youths, all aged between 14 and 20, were trapped on the platform intended to break the rush of the water falling from a height after floodgates of the Tenughat dam were opened, allegedly without warning, on Friday.
They were rescued late in the evening, but for a few hours, the incident raised the spectre of the June 8 tragedy in Mandi, in which 24 engineering students were washed away after the gates of a dam on the Beas were opened.
Eleven youths, all residents of Bharat Coking Coal Ltd’s Chandwadih colony in Dugda, had been playing cricket on Friday before they decided to go for a bath in the river 7 km away. Only two or three knew how to swim.
They entered the river from the bank on which the Damodar Valley Corporation has a power plant. As the swirling river rose, they scrambled on to the platform, from where one of them, 20-year-old Deepak Chauhan, managed to leap off and fight the current to swim to safety.
Deepak informed villagers on the Panchora bank, and the rescue operation began. A team of 12 tried to reach the 10 youths 200 m away on the platform, using inflated tubes of truck wheels to stay afloat.
“We could see the people assembling on the basti side. They were shouting instructions, but we could not hear anything above the roar of the water. We were panicking, but the older ones among us took care to keep the morale of the younger boys up,” said 18-year-old Ashok Kumar, one of the rescued youths. “Guddu, the eldest among us, did a good job.”
Babul Kewar, who was among the first rescuers to enter the river between 2 pm and 3 pm on Friday, said villagers buy the used truck tubes for Rs 200 or 300 a piece, and go into the water after jamming their bodies in them. “The plan was to navigate with our hands to the middle, and then cut across to reach the boys. But the river swept us off course to the DVC bank.”
The Tenughat dam is about 55 km away from Panchora. According to local fishermen, depending on the number of gates that are opened, the water takes between two and four hours to travel downstream to the village. Warnings about gate openings are issued in prominent newspapers, and the gates are usually opened in the afternoon. But overnight rain seemed to have forced a morning release of water on Friday.
“District officials arrived on the DVC bank. They said they had ordered the gates closed, but we knew it could take up to six hours for the water level to fall,” Babul said.
As it happened, the water level stayed high through the night. On Saturday, the district administration conceded it was unaware that the river was being fed by release from a second dam as well. “I have ordered an inquiry into why water from Hazaribagh’s Konar dam was being released at the same time,” Deputy Commissioner Uma Shankar Singh said.
According to Singh, who stayed at the spot until the youths were rescued, it was 7.30 or 8 in the night by the time the Konar gates could be shut.
At one point, it seemed the platform would collapse. “Water came up to our ankles. We huddled together in the centre,” Ashok said.
The Block Development Officer attempted a rope-trick rescue. “We wanted to tie it bank-to-bank, but it was so thin that it broke with the first pull,” Gangu Kewar said. The DC and local MLA Jagarnath Mahato arrived around 6 pm. The MLA spoke with Chief Minister Hemant Soren about getting in a helicopter, but it was already too dark to fly.
21 life jackets came around 8 pm. “The deputy superintendent of police who brought them insisted we wear them before entering the water again,” Babul said.
But for local fishermen, a prayer at the Baba Barhwa Hari mandir is more effective than life jackets to ward off danger. “Because of Him, we have not had a single accident. Our people were praying even when I and my close friend Shakti waded out around 11 in the night,” said Nandkishore Besra.
Nandkishore and Shakti went in from the Panchora bank, riding their truck tubes, without ropes or life jackets.
DC Singh said people with local expertise had been roped in for the rescue operation. No one in the 12-member team had been paid until Saturday. “We will recommend them for a Presidential award and honour them on August 15. We will also consider hiring them on fixed wages,” the DC said.
“After reaching the platform, the rescuers spent about 20 minutes explaining how our evacuation would go. Then, we made Arun [Chauhan, 15] wear a life jacket, as he was a bit scared. We sat in four tubes and were taken to the Panchora side in under five minutes,” said Ashok.
The youths were taken to the DVC Hospital in Chandrapura for a brief medical check-up before being dropped home.
On Saturday morning, the rescuers went for a darshan to the nearby Pahari mandir. “Some of the rescued boys too were there. It felt good to see them,” said Shakti.
“Throughout our time on the platform, I was praying it shouldn’t rain, raising the river higher. It was overcast, but it did not rain. Then, just over 30 minutes after we reached home at 2 in the morning, it began to pour,” Uttam Kumar (14), said.