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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Uttarakhand flash flood — Outside the tunnel: ‘Those stuck inside are my friends and brothers’

Lack of reliable information, a rough terrain and long hours without any success aside, it is the hope they see in the eyes of the families of men who are believed to be stuck in a tunnel.

Written by Mallica Joshi | Joshimath |
February 11, 2021 3:07:05 am
NDRF teams at the site of the incident.

FOR THREE days now, hundreds of men and women have found themselves at the forefront of a search and rescue operation that has mounted challenges not many have faced before. Lack of reliable information, a rough terrain and long hours without any success aside, it is the hope they see in the eyes of the families of men who are believed to be stuck in a tunnel, and under the rubble and sludge brought on by flash floods in Chamoli, that keeps them going.

The Indian Express speaks to four people who are part of the massive effort at Tapovan and Raini.

Naveen Nautiyal, excavator driver

As paper cups of steaming tea are passed around, Nautiyal’s eyes are trained on the mouth of the tunnel. He has made the same short journey into the tunnel at NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel power project hundreds of times over the past three days and he replays the well-practiced movements in his head.

The 34-year-old started driving an excavator when he was 20. All through the past 14 years, he has been working at the same project.

So when the flash floods washed away a smaller power plant upstream at Raini village and destroyed the barrage at the Tapovan site, he was the one the district administration turned to. He has made hundreds of short trips inside the tunnel driving the excavator and has come back with a load of sludge each time but, he says, it does not stop flowing.

“Earlier, the project was being run by a different company. Around seven years ago, Rithwik Projects Private Limited took over. The names of the companies may have changed, but we stayed here. The tunnel is full of sludge, and it is not stopping. Those stuck inside are my friends and brothers. I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through,” he said.

Although his colleague has taken over his duties for a few hours, Nautiyal did not move from the spot.

A father of two who lives in Joshimath with his parents, wife and children, Nautiyal is familiar with the tunnel, which is the focus of all rescue operations now. “There is no mobile network in the tunnel after the first 20 metres, so contacting the workers was always out of the question. We have no way of knowing what became of them till the tunnel is cleared of debris. I will stay here till that is done,” he said.

Nautiyal’s family members have pleaded with him to not go to the site anymore as they are scared something might happen to him. “They are worried that I might get buried too but I will not abandon these people,” he said.

Yogesh Rawat & Praveen Chauhan, SDRF members

Their task was to descend down the steep hillside, cross the river, and set up a zip line that would help the State Disaster Response Force officials to transport essentials like food and medicines to the Raini Palli and Paing villages, which have been cut off from the rest of the Chamoli district after the flash floods.

It was when he stepped into the ice-cold slush and sunk rapidly that Rawat (30) first felt panic set in. “We are trained for these situations. I am a trained mountaineer, as is Praveen, but this was very scary. What looks like solid mud from above is like deadly quicksand,” he said.

With the SDRF since 2016, Rawat and Chauhan, both from Dehradun, were part of the Fire Department before signing up for the force that comes into play during disasters such as these. They were also part of the rescue operation in 2013, when flash floods devastated Kedarnath.

“In Kedarnath, things were different because it was raining constantly and communication lines were snapped completely. Here, these issues are not in play but the challenges remain,” said Chauhan (30).

The team, of which both were a part, was armed with ropes, and fought the initial panic to slowly make its way through the sludge. They managed to establish the line in 3-4 hours and on Wednesday morning, sent across supplies like milk, biscuits and medicines for villagers in Raini Palli village.

Aparna Kumar, DIG, ITBP, Dehradun sector

With hundreds of men under her charge deployed at Joshimath for search and rescue operations at two points, Kumar has been stationed outside the tunnel at Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel power plant for the four days.

This is the first time the IPS officer, who belongs to Karnataka and is an expert mountaineer who has scaled the seven highest peaks in the world, has been in charge of leading a team of officers in a disaster zone.

Her team tasted success early on as 12 people were rescued from an under construction tunnel, a few metres away from the Tapovan tunnel. Since then, however, it has been a long and frustrating wait for the officers at the site.

The already challenging task of locating and rescuing around 35 people who are believed to be stuck in the tunnel, Kumar said, had become tougher with the weather taking a turn for the worse on Wednesday afternoon.

“There is forecast for rain for the next 2-3 days, which means the water levels will rise again and the sludge that had started to dry slowly will get saturated with water again. This raises challenges for us as it might mean that we will lose access to the section of the tunnel we have already cleared,” she said.

For Kumar and her team, the wait has been long. Till the time there is a clear path which the ITBP teams can take, all they can do is wait.

“We cannot ask team members to go into the sludge because we cannot risk their lives. So many lives have been lost already. That has been extremely challenging. Many of them came from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and parts of South India. All teams are working in coordination, but there is only so much we can do. Our aim will be to try to find people alive,” she said.

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