They saved many lives,but lost their own

FOR the hundreds who were airlifted from the ghost town of Kedarnath last week

Written by Manu Pubby | New Delhi | Published: June 27, 2013 5:52 am

FOR the hundreds who were airlifted from the ghost town of Kedarnath last week,two faces from among those who rescued them would immediately stand out. Their names may not be remembered — the utter pace of the air evacuation left no time for conversation — but many will recall the extremely polite sub-inspector,a wireless set always in one hand,and the second-in-command of the NDRF unit,ever smiling and relaxed under pressure who gently but firmly loaded chopper after chopper for the short flight out of Kedar valley.

On Sunday,with the area almost fully evacuated,both were certain that in a matter of a days they would be back in the plains,after a week of hard work under difficult circumstances and almost non-existent equipment.

“Have a safe flight. We will be joining you soon. I have just received orders for coming back. Our work here is done,” Sub-Inspector Satish Kumar of the 8 NDRF told this reporter,after boarding us onto an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) of the Indian Air Force from Kedarnath on Sunday afternoon.

Sadly,Kumar and 14 of his colleagues from the NDRF and ITBP,who had toiled for days to evacuate the temple town,did not make it down from the Kedar valley,dying in the Mi 17 V5 chopper crash on Tuesday afternoon. The chopper crashed near the treacherous Jungle Chatti area,kilometres short of the base camp of Gaurikund.

The joint NDRF-ITBP team was the lifeline of the hundreds who were stranded in Kedarnath after flash floods cut off the town from its base camp of Gaurikund. Going beyond the call of duty,the team shared personal rations,water and even makeshift plastic sheet tents with those stranded for days,never complaining or losing their temper.

The ever smiling face of Nityanand Gupta,the second-in-command of the Ghaziabad-based 8 NDRF unit,was the first to greet this reporter when we landed at a helipad set on a mountain ridge overlooking the shrine on Saturday. After ensuring that almost 20 people had boarded the chopper that was returning,the officer gave an update on the ground situation. “Most of the work is over. It has been a difficult few days but almost everyone is out,expect for a few sadhus,” he said,adding,“Let us meet in Delhi in a few days,we will tell you how we managed it all.”

The NDRF-ITBP team was the first and only rescue mission in the town of Kedarnath that has seen the maximum destruction. Besides managing the various helicopter landing areas around the shrine to evacuate people,it was also tasked with locating survivors. This meant trudging in the slush-filled streets of Kedarnath,peeking into buildings,shifting stones to look for possible survivors,all in the stench of death that had by then become all prevailing in the town.

“Every time we move a stone or lift some debris,we see a body. We started collecting some wood today in case funerals are planned,and,in a matter of minutes,came across several bodies under the planks we lifted. We have never seen a tragedy of this scale,” said Inspector Bhim Singh of the NDRF,another victim of the chopper crash,who met this reporter at the entrance of the Kedarnath temple,with his crew of a dozen men,equipped only with shovels and face masks. “It is not our mandate to carry out cremations,but the wood may come in handy for the police when they organise the funerals,” the Inspector from Kathua,in Jammu and Kashmir,added.

Most will remember the ITBP-NDRF team for their kindness and generosity at the exacting heights of Kedarnath,that meant the difference between life and death,as both food and water got scarce. The team,which had only one functional tent,opened it up for sick pilgrims and sadhus who otherwise would have had to spend the night under the stars.

It was Sub-Inspector Satish Kumar,however,who left the most indelible impression on those stranded in Kedarnath. Among the last batch to be evacuated was a group of a dozen sadhus,two of them ailing and in desperate need for water that had long run out. “We have only 20 bottles of water left as part of our personal rations. I will ensure that you immediately get 10. Sorry,but bear with us,we cannot share more as we are not sure how many days we may get stuck here due to the weather,” he said.

At night,Kumar slept under a plastic sheet,vacating his space in the tent for a sick sadhu and a colleague who had taken ill. In the early morning,he would be seen distributing medicines to those in need.

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