On Tuesday morning, survivors stood picking up the pieces in the carnage that the wall collapse in Ambedkar Nagar and Pimpri Pada in Malad’s Kurar village left behind. Strewn in nearly a hundred homes reduced to rubble were black tarpaulin sheets protecting the roofs during monsoon, asbestos sheets left crumpled like tissue paper, refrigerator doors, ceiling fans with twisted blades, bicycles, utensils, a gaping semi-automatic washing machine, mobile phone chargers, school backpacks, clothes and jewellery boxes. Some found claimants, others lay in wait.
The morning after, hillock shanties in Pimpri Pada and Ambedkar Nagar told the tale of mayhem that unfolded in the wee hours of the day as a 35-feet concrete wall came crashing down at the two locations bordering the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Malad Hill reservoir, claiming 22 lives and destroying hundreds of slum tenements and displacing as many families.
In the 24 hours until 8 am on Tuesday, the Dindoshi Fire Station, the nearest local weather station to Kurar village, recorded average rainfall of 479.56 mm.
The protection wall, erected but a year and a half back, to protect the reservoir premises from encroachment, gave way at the two locations after heavy rains pounded Mumbai’s western suburbs through Monday and early Tuesday morning. According to residents of Ambedkar Nagar it was at about 12:30 am that the wall with a barbed wire fence descended on the slum dwellers, letting the water collected behind it wash away the shanties, giving the slum dwellers no time to run to rescue. Less than a kilometre away, in Pimpri Pada the rescue operations ran into late afternoon on Tuesday as the Mumbai Fire Brigade and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) labored to pull a 15-year-old girl from under the wall but after over 14 hours after being buried under the concrete wall, the teenager succumbed before she could be pulled out from under the wall.
The Mumbai Fire Brigade received a call at 1:01 am and arrived at the spot at 2 am. The reticulation of kachcha tenements scaled the hill adjoining the Malad Hill reservoir, that supplies water to the western suburbs of Malad, Goregaon and Jogeshwari. With the nearest motorable road at least a kilometre from both locations, access too was not easy.
Kashinath Shinde (55), a slightly built man, bore cuts and bruises on his forearm and knees. Where his home stood until last night, BMC’s labourers were digging into the debris, making sure no one was buried under it. He was called to account for his family members. “Before we even knew what had hit us, it was all over. We were thrown outside by the water. My wife and son are both injured and have been taken to the hospital. We have been stripped of whatever little we owned. Where will we find the strength to start over,” said a teary Shinde, as he clutched tightly a plastic cover with some documents that he thought would be important for this 20-year-old son.
“It was dark, we couldn’t even see what had happened. The electricity went out, our mobile phones were lost or dead. We just picked up all the children we could, including a four-month-old baby and ran for our lives. We ran down the hill where the ground is more solid. We stood in the rain with the children through the night but not a single person came forward to offer us shelter,” said Pratibha Tambe (42), who works as a domestic help.
Twenty-eight year old freelance photographer Sameer Talekar sat atop a mount of debris salvaging what he could. “It was raining heavily last night so my mother called and asked me to come home early. But even before I could reach home, everything was finished. We didn’t have a home anymore. Everything was gone just like that. Now we have to make do with what we can find to rebuild our lives,” he said as he asked his cousin Reena if she had spotted their cupboard in the debris.
Rendered homeless overnight, several slum dwellers were expected to spend the night in BMC schools, temples and the Shiv Sena shakha in the locality.
With lives to rebuild, the time to grieve had to wait. Nirmala Temkar, who said she had lived in Ambedkar Nagar slum for 30 years, said, “We’ve seen rains every year but never like this. Our neighbor Namita has died, we were informed. She lived right here,” she pointed to a mount of debris on a concrete floor. Her daughter Ashwini let two young men bring black plastic bags packed with clothes into their home behind a tarpaulin sheet. “These are her things. At least we can keep them safe till someone in her family comes back from hospital,” she said.
Vinay Rathod, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Zone XII, said that the first distress call was made by local residents to the police control room at 1 am. “We have registered a case of accidental death as of now. Once the search and rescue operations are completed and the BMC and Fire Brigade submit their incidents reports, we will take a call on what charges to file and against whom,” he said