Around 8 pm on Thursday night, when Thankamani (49) and her husband Velayudhan heard a loud, booming sound, she recognised instantly that the hill that had never put them in danger was finally coming down. They were going to die, she said to herself. Seconds later, portions of the hill, a combination of mud, trees and boulders, swept down, along the two sides of their small home, leaving it untouched, but crushing all their neighboring homes. All through the night, the couple, childless, stuck by each other as torrential rain poured on.
On Friday morning, the couple came out of their house to find their tiny neighborhood of around a dozen homes disappear. Except for their home, a tiny Shiva temple and a clump of areca nut trees in the centre, the hill had wiped out everything. Where Thankamani’s neighbors lived and their kids played, there was simply deep layers of muddy, brown soil. A concrete road leading to their home had disappeared too. The debris, which flowed as far as half a kilometer ahead, snuffed out acres of areca nut plantations. If ever there was a miracle in Kavalappara that night, it saved the lives of Thankamani and her husband.
“Everyone thought we were dead. We didn’t think we would survive too. If we were dying anyway, I wanted us to go together. But God saved us,” said Thankamani, who rears goats and occasionally goes for rubber tapping. Her husband, who underwent heart surgery recently, cannot walk.
They were rescued with great difficulty by local men who came from the other side of a rivulet looking for survivors. “When they called out, I shouted back. Somehow, we made it. But I couldn’t take my goats or any of the belongings. I had to leave them there,” she said.
In Kavalappara, a remote village nestled in the Western Ghats close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, rescue operations finally picked up Sunday morning, with the skies remaining clear and more earth-moving machines making it to the site. Different teams of the NDRF, Army, Police, Fire Force and local organisations spread out in different corners of the expansive landslide site to dig out bodies of 34 or more persons still reported to be missing. Till Sunday afternoon, 12 bodies were unearthed. Survivors are unlikely, rescue personnel collectively agree.
“The debris has collected up to a height of 10-12 feet and some bodies may be at the bottom. Forget survivors, it is so tough to even retrieve the bodies,” said Ansar Ali, 35, a member of a rescue organisation tied to the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Ali, who pitched in for rescue early Sunday morning, was able to dig out the body of a young girl amid what looked like remains of her house.
“We got a tip from some locals that there could be a few bodies there in that spot as it was where a house stood. So we began digging with iron rods and pitchforks. As we began digging, we could smell the bodies. At a depth of about five feet, we found the young girl. Around nine bodies could still be around that area,” said Ali.
Two earth moving machines worked simultaneously to move the sludge as men used electric cutters to chop broken areca nut trees and remove them from the site. Locals from neighbouring villages poured in every hour, asking rescue personnel about the death toll, and taking photos of the landslide site. The flow was so much that police had to put up barricades five kilometers away restricting movement of cars and other heavy vehicles. The complete dismantling of power lines made rescue operations at night impossible. There was also a steady stream of cars and trucks carrying essential food, clothes and essential items for the relief camps.
Joseph, who visited the landslide site searching for a person who once worked with him, said, “It breaks my heart to see this. The magnitude of the disaster and the lives of so many innocent, poor people it has taken. It’s shocking.”
Janardhanan, a local, said, “Actually, we never really thought for a second the hill would come down. Even during last year’s floods, we were moved to relief camps fearing a landslide. But nothing happened. So this time too, we thought people would be safe.”
“This time, nobody gave any instructions or warnings. In the end, there was very little time to run away,” he added.
For Thankamani, a long period of uncertainty lies ahead. They may have escaped by the skin of their teeth and their house may be structurally intact, but they know they can never return to the hill.
“We always wanted to live in our own house. So my husband went for daily wage work and I looked after cows, goats and hens to set aside some savings. We bought the 5-cent plot and built the house with the savings. Now it’s impossible for us to earn and do that again,” she said.
“Life is uncertain. Now, I think maybe it was better to die that night,” she added.
Moreover, as the news of more bodies being taken out kept doing the rounds in the village, Thankamani’s heart sank further. On Sunday, when the body of a young girl being retrieved by rescue forces was informed to her, Thankamani couldn’t figure out who it could be. After all, there were too many kids in that neighborhood who played around Thankamani’s home all day long.