Everest summiteers to IITian top cop: People at forefront of U'khand rescue ops
HT spoke to some of the main rescuers and officers on the frontline who are leading and coordinating the search and rescue operations.
The tragedy that struct Uttarakhand's Chamoli on February 7 has been testing those involved in the search and rescue operation every day. Those leading the challenging task and at the forefront of it include trained mountaineers, IITian top-cop, structural engineers to Everest summiteers and senior officers of state police, rescue agencies and state administration.
Posed with new difficulties and challenges every day, they have been working tirelessly to bring relief to the affected families. HT spoke to some of the main rescuers and officers on the frontline who are leading and coordinating the search and rescue operations at Rishiganga, Tapovan and downstream, in which the death toll has now reached 58 while 146 are still missing.
Navneet Bhullar, commandant, SDRF Uttarakhand
Navneet Bhullar, who was part of the 2018 Everest expedition, said after he came to know about the tragedy and its magnitude, he, along with five other SDRF members, flew to Joshimath and reached the disaster site by 12.45 pm.
“There was chaos and people were panic-stricken. The first thing we did was to mobilise 11 SDRF teams of nine members each. The Army from Joshimath had already reached there. The ITBP also came by the second and the third day the NDRF personnel joined. We spoke with NTPC engineers for maps and details of workers at the site. We had to change our rescue tactics to see whether if there were workers in the underground tunnel. Boulders and water percolation also created many challenges. Personally, I feel not knowing exactly where workers could be was very difficult to process,” he said.
“My mountaineering experience, especially the Everest expedition, helped me lead the SDRF team to the lake that had formed upstream and get back with its first up-close visuals,” he said.
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Everest summiteers of SDRF's Hight Attitude Rescue Team (HART)
When inputs came that a lake was forming again upstream Rishiganga, an eight-member HART team, which included six people who had scaled Mount Everest in 2018, and Navneet Bhullar, who had to stop 160 metres short of Everest peak due to malfunctioning of his oxygen cylinder in the same expedition, was sent to the area for the ground survey on Friday. The team trekked the whole day, camped for the night and reached the lake the next day. They took stock of the ground situation and took photographs, samples of soil and water from the lake for analysis by the experts.
“We had been given four tasks. We had to get photographs and videos of the lake. Second, we had to get water, soil and mud samples. Third, we had to check the possibility of a helipad in the area, which we realised was not possible given the terrain there. And four, we were asked to widen the point where the water of the lake was draining out, if possible. We sent one team member, Manoj Joshi, there but it was too risky. He widened it by few feet but then we called him back as it was too dangerous,” said Ravi Chauhan, member of the team and an Everest summiteer.
Manoj Joshi, another Everest summiteer, said, their experience of rescue operations in Kedarnath area in 2013 and the 2018 Everest expedition helped them reach the lake upstream faster.
“With the help of a rope, I even reached the drainage point of the lake to see whether it can be widened. It was a very dangerous incline and widening it was difficult. But being the first team that reached there, we gave our inputs that lake was draining slowly and apprised authorities and experts about the ground situation,” said Joshi.
Swati Bhadoriya, district magistrate, Chamoli
Swati Bhadoriya, the district magistrate of Chamoli, an IAS officer of 2012 batch, said it has been her most challenging time in the service so far at many levels. “I was at Gopeshwar when I came to know around 10.40 am on February 7 that something had happened. Initially, we didn’t think it was such a big tragedy but when more inputs came, I cancelled all my engagements and left for Tapovan and reached there within nearly two hours so. I started coordinating the search and rescue operations with local officials, the police, the SDRF, the Army and the ITBP. I called senior government functionaries and requested for a chopper and an expert team and also issued alert for downstream banks to be vacated. I left my three and half-year-old son with my help. For the next four days, I didn’t see my son. After 4 days, I brought him to Joshimath where I stay for the night these days. I am devoting all my time to coordinate search and rescue operations and take care of issues like providing relief to the affected people and restoring connectivity to 13 villages," she said.
Bhadoriya said the first major operation was rescuing 12 people trapped in one of the tunnels in Tapovan on February 7. “We took the help of structural engineers of NTPC who gave us maps and we prepared a list of missing people. One major thing concern is to find ways to keep the morale of the rescuers up. To keep them motivated has also been a big task,” she said.
Ridhim Agarwal, DIG, SDRF Uttarakhand
An IPC officer of 2005 batch, Agarwal said the biggest challenge initially for her was to mobilise the manpower immediately for rescue and search operation.
“I came to know about the tragedy at around 11.45 am after which we immediately mobilised the state emergency operation centre. The nodal officers of the departments concerned came and started mobilising teams for rescue and search operations. We mobilised our three close SDRF posts at Rudraprayag, Gochar and Joshimath. The flood team at Dalwala was also mobilised immediately. Overall, 100 SDRF personnel are pressed into rescue and search operations in 18 to 20 teams, including six teams from Srinagar to Joshimath which are looking for bodies downstream. Identifying decomposed bodies and body parts is emerging as a big challenge for us,” she said.
“In such difficult times, you forget all your personal travails. You just want to save people and find bodies so that their families can get some relief. I had to leave my two sons studying back home. They are having their final examinations but they are managing on their own as I can’t give them any time these days,” she said.
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Ashok Kumar, Uttarakhand DGP
Uttarakhand director general of police (DGP), Ashok Kumar, who became an IPS officer after passing out from an IIT was on his official tour of the Kumaon range and on his way to Almora from Nainital when he received a video of the flash floods on his phone. Seeing the video, he immediately sensed "it is something big" and rushed to contact all concerned police officers from Chamoli to Haridwar districts along the Alaknanda river to issue a high alert.
Kumar said it was the first big challenge before him after being appointed the DGP last year. “The first thing I did after knowing about the disaster was to alert the people living alongside river and move them to safe places,” he said.
"The villagers near the river had shifted to safer places. Social media played a crucial role in alerting people as we had put out alert posts across all social media platforms, and it worked," said Kumar.
"Right from day one, our biggest challenge has been finding missing people and then identifying them," said Kumar.
“Lessons learnt from the Kedarnath disaster helped the police and other agencies in the rescue and search operation. This time, we received four times more help than required," said Kumar.
Aparna Kumar, DIG ITBP
Aparna Kumar, deputy inspector, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) sector headquarters, Dehradun, who is also the first ITBP woman officer to scale the South Pole, said when disaster struck, she immediately mobilised personnel under her command in Joshimath and left for the spot in her official car. She said that being the first responder to any disaster in the Himalayas, the ITBP personnel, after knowing about the disaster, immediately rushed to the spot from their base in Joshimath.
"Being a high-altitude force, the ITBP is trained to work for rescue in such disasters,” she said.
"It was a tremendous feat that our personnel worked with complete focus and determination amidst the chaos at the disaster site and were able to rescue the 12 workers trapped in the tunnel at NTPC's hydel power project site on day one itself. For others, the number of deaths or missing might be just a number but for us, every life trapped there is precious to be saved."
Kumar said that she had called the force's doctors and medical staff at the spot to provide medical assistance to the survivors.
"I also ensured to provide solace to the workers of NTPC and the villagers who lost their dear ones in the disaster as it was important to keep a humane approach," said Kumar, adding that it was her first experience of working in such a "mammoth disaster."
Neeru Garg, DIG Garhwal
Deputy inspector general, Garhwal, Neeru Garg, an engineer-turned-cop had rushed to the disaster spot with chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat and Garhwal divisional commissioner (DC) Ravinath Raman on February 7. Recalling the day, Garg said she was directed to leave for the spot with the CM and the DC. “Meanwhile, I had issued an immediate alert across all the districts downstream of Alaknanda river which included Tehri Garhwal, Pauri Garhwal, Rudraprayag and Haridwar," said Garg.
A first of its kind experience for her, she said she "had never handled such a disaster as a cop before."
"I had immediately asked all the police stations and outposts near the river to alert the residents to go to safe places apart from stopping all the activities in the river including adventure sports," said Garg.
With the search and rescue operation still on to find those missing, the senior police officer said, "at present, the main focus is to recover the bodies and ascertain their identities."