After a landslide struck Pettimudi in Idukki district last Thursday night, crushing a settlement of 83 tea estate workers, the first alert about the tragedy took eight hours to reach the nearest town of Munnar, 16 km away.
During these hours, the surviving workers were helpless in the marooned village, with no power or communication network.
Senthil Kumar (42), a supervisor at Pettimudi division of Kanan Devan Tea Plantation Company Limited and the local boss for the estate workers, was informed about the landslide an hour after it occurred. It took another six hours for him to take the news 3 km away.
Fact Check: A look at how the Idukki landslide occurred
Kumar, who lives 500 metres from the settlements destroyed in the landslide, said, “It was raining continuously for three days prior to the landslide. Our workers normally go to bed by 8.30 pm, as they have to leave for work early morning.”
Around 10.45 pm, Kumar said, some youths woke up to the sound of a flash flood gushing down near their houses. They rushed out to alert those living in quarters below. But in a few seconds, the landslide had left a heavy blanket of slurry, sludge and rocks over around 80 people, who were asleep.
Kumar said it took the youths an hour to reach his house because the road was flooded and blocked by fallen rocks and trees. “They wanted me to inform the company office. Pettimudi has satellite connectivity for mobile networks. As there was no power for four days, the mobile network was down. I started my bike and switched on the light to get a grasp of what had happened.”
Kumar recalled seeing only debris where 30-odd houses of his colleagues had stood. The valley was flooded. “It was already past midnight. Residents of nearby quarters used torchlight to take stock of the situation. Hands of victims were protruding from the mud. But we could not go near due to the deep slurry,” he said.
Idukki landslide| Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan promises land, homes for those affected
In order to get help, Kumar and some others started walking to the residence of an assistant manager of the estate, 3 km away at Rajamala. “We plodded through roads filled with debris. A river between Pettimudi and Rajamala was overflowing. Not knowing whether any part of a bridge or road had collapsed, we used a long stick to find our way. We walked four hours in the dark, amid heavy rain, mist and wind, and reached the assistant manager at daybreak,” he said.
There was no power or mobile connectivity at the house of assistant manager Dennis Mathew, Kumar said. He took a bike and rode 8 km to the top of a hillock to find mobile network. When the news reached Munnar, it was around 7 am, he said.
Help from outside reached Pettimudi only around 11 am on Friday as a temporary bridge from Munnar to Rajamala — erected in place of one damaged in the floods of 2018 — had been partially washed away two days ago. By then, Pettimudi villagers had made slings using saris and sticks to carry the injured to a dispensary 3 km away. As many as 272 people were living in the village in 135 quarters.
During the week-long search, 55 bodies have been retrieved and 15 people are still missing. Governor Arif Mohammed Khan and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visited Pettimudi on Thursday and offered all assistance for the families of the deceased and rehabilitation for survivors.
Kerala will identify land and build homes for those who lost their quarters in the landslide, the Chief Minister said.
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