A pilgrimage to Kedarnath turned into the worst nightmare for thousands of devotees stranded in Uttarakhand, but a resident of New Palam Vihar, Lokesh Sharma, was fortunate enough to escape nature's fury along with nine other family members.
"We left on June 15 but could not reach Kedarnath due to heavy rainfall. We had to stay at Pandukeshwar, near Joshi Math. We did not get any rooms on rent and had to stay in a shop. We then moved to a small temple. But, as the temple was crowded, some of us had to sleep in the cars," Sharma said, recounting the horror.
On the fateful night, Sharma woke up after his vehicle suddenly started shaking.
"I thought it was an earthquake but then I saw mud flowing beside my car. The velocity of the water had shaken the entire village," he said.
Taking the advice of villagers, Sharma moved his family to a nearby hotel as the temple had nearly got submerged. "I saw a hotel called Gokul getting washed away along with electricity poles. I got so petrified that I moved my vehicles about 500 metres ahead on a hill 10-15 other vehicles had taken refuge."
In another half hour, a nearby hospital got washed away in front of his eyes, said Sharma, along with the ambulance and other vehicles. "We were stranded as the roads to Joshimath, Govindghat and Badrinath had been washed away."
Amid all the devastation, food was a mjor issue for the family.
"For the first two days, we could manage bread and jam but the locals were selling things at a premium," said Sharma's sister Rajbala. "Even the local police did nothing to mitigate the exploitation of stranded tourists. There was no support from the state apparatus."
The Sharmas told HT that they could not avail the emergency helicopter evacuation service as there were many more who needed help.
"We owe our lives to the ITBP and the Army. We decided to take the route over the hills. The slope was so slippery and steep that we would have perished if it had not been for these agencies," said Sharma.
"The jawans literally carried me on their back. I can't thank them more. I have no words," said Rajbala, who has undergone knee replacements and is unable to walk for long.
The family also talked about how taxi drivers and the police exploited stranded tourists.
"I tried taking the help of a police personnel to get to Karnprayag from Chamoli where the ITBP personnel had dropped us. The taxis charged thrice the normal fare and the police turned a blind eye even after complaints," Sharma said.
The family arrived at Anand Vihar ISBT on Friday after leaving behind their cars in Uttarakhand. "My friends had come to receive us. We all hugged and cried, he said.
Lokesh's father, Ramchander Sharma, thanked God for the safe return of his children and grandchildren. "When I heard about the state of affairs, I thought I must not lose faith in God. Things will unfold as He wants and for the good of all," the octogenarian said.
In all the chaos, a tea vendor in Pandukeshwar was the only ray of hope for the family. Though he charged them for tea, he never took a penny for using his phone.
"I called my father to tell him that we had arrived safe," said a visibly moved Rajbala.