Shortly after 7:45 pm Friday, Irshad Valanat heard a deafening explosion like a bomb had gone off. With the rain pouring, he hesitated to go out. But sure enough, within a few minutes, as is common in these parts of northern Kerala, the answer to the explosion presented before him in the form of troubling voice clips on WhatsApp from his friends and neighbours.
One of them said, “A plane has crashed into the gorge at the end of the runway toward Mukkottu. It’s a terrible accident. Please open all roads towards Kondotty.”
Another pleaded, “Please send as many cars and ambulances as possible to the runway. We need more vehicles.”
A third one said, “A lot of people are in pain. Please come fast with vehicles.”
Irshad, who deals in vegetables and fruits for export to the Middle East, dialled a couple of his friends and bolted for the crash site. The area being a Covid-19 containment zone with over 60 active cases, key roads had been blocked with stones and barrels. Clearing some of them, he finally reached the spot where the magnitude of the disaster overwhelmed him.
“The aircraft was sliced into two pieces, with the front end including the cockpit piercing into the boundary wall. Around 30 people were already there with an ambulance and a fire force vehicle on standby. Huge stones of the wall had fallen onto the aircraft. The other half of the aircraft was a few feet away,” he told indianexpress.com.
Irshad was one of the first responders Friday when an Air India Express flight from Dubai skidded off the tabletop runway at Kozhikode and dived nosefirst into a gorge 35 feet deep, killing 20 people including the pilot and the co-pilot. Before the NDRF and other rescue agencies arrived at the spot, locals like Irshad helped transport critically-injured passengers from the flight in private cars and autorickshaws to nearby hospitals, which has made the difference between life and death for many. And in these parts of Kerala, such anecdotes of selfless volunteer work in times of crisis are not hard to find.
So much so that when Shibu, an autoricshaw driver who plies near the airport terminal, showed up at the crash site around 8:10 pm to offer his help, the police had to turn him away as there were already over a 100 people from nearby localities engaging in rescue work.
“All my friends were already there, helping rescue people stuck inside the aircraft. Because, if you heard those voice clips on WhatsApp, you’d not be able to stay back at home. Here, when there’s a crisis, everyone pitches in to help, ignoring everything else. That’s how we have lived all our life,” said Shibu.
It was Irshad and a few of his friends who brought out a bloodied, unconscious Deepak Vasanth Sathe, the ex-Air Force pilot of the aircraft, and co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar from the badly mangled cockpit.
“We removed the stones from the top of the cockpit. And when we tried to bring the pilot out, we noticed that the seatbelt was locked. We had to wait a couple of minutes before someone brought a cutter. His face was dripping in blood. By then, an ambulance arrived. We placed him on the stretcher and got him out of there,” said Irshad. However, the efforts were futile as both Sathe and Kumar succumbed to injuries.
After rescuing a bunch of others, Irshad made his way to the two local hospitals when he got calls from his friends that many passengers, especially kids, had got separated and had trouble finding each other. He spent almost two hours at those hospitals, making calls and texting volunteers, until they were reunited.
Junaid, a vegetables vendor in the area who was also among the first responders at the crash site, claimed that nearly 70 per cent of the victims were ferried to local hospitals in private vehicles owned by the locals. That’s one of the reasons why all 191 persons on the flight were rescued within just one and a half hours.
“When I reached the site, there were hardly about 20 people. But within a few minutes, I lost count of the people who flocked to the area to help. And I’m not surprised. This is Malappuram and this is Kondotty. We are known for our volunteer work,” he said.
“It’s true we followed no Covid protocol during rescue efforts. Because it would have been impossible to do it by following protocol,” he said.
After one of the deceased passengers on the flight tested positive for Covid-19, the state health department has asked all rescue volunteers to enter self-monitored quarantine at home.
“Rescue workers have come to the crash site from all the nearby panchayats. So the numbers are big. We have opened a control room at the district medical office for them to inform us. They can also register at the local PHC,” said Krishnan, a local health official.
“The situation is very critical,” he admitted.
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