FIRO AND Risky sniffed out and identified air pockets to show their human counterparts where in the debris they could look for trapped survivors during the two-day search and rescue operation at Kesarbai Mansion in Dongri, where a portion of the building collapsed killing 13 and leaving nine injured on Tuesday.
When it reaches the site of a building collapse, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) first sends out its sniffer dogs to scoop out and identify air pockets before using their excavation and life-detection tools.
“On Tuesday and Wednesday, Firo and Risky pointed out areas where they thought survivors may be trapped. We dug into the debris accordingly,” said Mahesh Nalawade, Assistant Commandant, 5th Batallion, NDRF, who led the operation.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the sniffer dogs helped rescue four people from the debris, of whom, however, only one survived.
“We had already used the sniffer dogs in the morning. But at night, when some residents insisted that their family member is trapped, two dogs were rushed to the spot,” said an NDRF official.
“As soon as we saw the sniffer dogs entering the spot, I followed the NDRF. Within 30 minutes, they had helped locate the trapped persons,” said Abdul Sattar Shaikh, a local resident.
Of the four who were pulled out, two minors died while their mother, Alema Idrisy (28), was alive after being trapped in the debris for 18 hours. A tailor, Isar Ahmed, was the last to be retrieved dead from under the debris.
Local residents, who were assisting the authorities in the operation, were all praise for Firo and Risky, whom they fed biscuits and water. Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, the operation progressed slowly, with the possibility of finding people alive always high.
Sniffing and saving lives
The NDRF is deployed to the site of a disaster when the local administration is not equipped to respond. Its sniffer dogs are trained to especially detect life in collapsed structures and enclosed spaces. With the NDRF sourcing its cadre from the Central Reserve Police Force, training for sniffer dogs, which are mostly Labrador Retrievers, is also in line with that of the agency. This has enabled sniffer dogs to achieve high accuracy in detecting and saving lives. Standard operating procedures have been formulated in such a way that the dogs are only deployed to a site when it is adjudged to be safe for them to work in. Like their human counterparts, sniffer dogs are relieved by back-up every few hours and their food is packed along with other equipment.
“Our experience of working at building collapse sites in Bellary (2016) and Dockyard Road (2013) shows that people manage to stay alive under debris for days at a time as long they find pockets of air,” said Sachidanand Gawade, Deputy Commandant, NDRF. The long slabs of wall at Kesarbai Mansion left open the possibility that those trapped beneath were not completely cut off from air.
“That is why we did not rush to use excavators to dig out debris. When you use cranes, there is always the danger of shifting the delicate balance of the debris. Even a slight shift can cause the whole pile to collapse and crush those below,” he said.
The narrow lane leading to the building and cramped space posed challenges to personnel engaged in the operation. Nalawade said the other wing of the building, which had been lying vacant since 2017, was perched precariously and was a constant threat.
“Since it was a residential building, there is always a risk in using gas cutters as they could strike LPG cylinders and cause an explosion,” he said.
By the time the operation was completed at 6 pm, it was only extended due to fears that workers in the ground floor godown may still be trapped.
“We had located all the residents by Wednesday morning. But no one was sure about the presence and number of workers in the ground floor, so we dug all the way to the bottom,” said Nalawade.