Uttarakhand Disaster: How Wooden Planks, Water Look Out Teams And Mobile Connections Are Becoming Life Savers

Sumati Mehrishi

Feb 08, 2021, 07:53 PM | Updated 07:53 PM IST

Rescue efforts.
Rescue efforts.
  • Wooden planks — to navigate the slush.
  • Water look out teams — to prevent further casualties in case water is rising.
  • Mobile connections — to trace those trapped.
  • The massive glacier breach in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district resulted in the flooding and trapping of labourers in the slush and debris inside the tunnels in Tapovan area.

    Reportedly, the NTPC Tapovan hydel project was washed away and it is here that the first set of rescues was made. The slush is reportedly 20 feet deep at the site.

    The blocked tunnel at the Tapovan project was opened due to joint efforts with Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) as one of the steering forces.

    The small Rishiganga hydro project would become the other site of disaster.

    Nearly 20 people were reportedly working in one tunnel and 50-60 in the other.

    Hundreds of labourers working on a power project in the area are reported missing due to the disaster. A high alert was sounded in districts, including Pauri, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Haridwar and Dehradun.

    The Dhauliganga raged due to the breach in the glacier. The ITBP personnel were pressed into action in Raini village of Chamoli district. They are working in tandem with National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), and state police. The coordinated response from the team was prompt and resulted in quick action at the tunnels.

    The first responders of the Himalayas work — on a high morale. Teamwork is sacrosanct. The big task for today (Monday) is to reach people trapped inside the tunnel. For that, nearly 100 metres of the tunnel has to be cleared of debris and slush.

    The flow of water was swift initially. Signs of tragedy started trickling in when bodies were recovered far away from the site of the impact. Some people were reported to be trapped in "deep areas". Many others were reported trapped in the tunnels.

    The rescue teams were facing the challenge of access to the tunnels and excavators were used to clear the slush and debris inside the tunnel to open it.

    This is how the ongoing challenge looks with the two tunnels being at a distance of about two and a half kms.

    The action from ITBP was prompt. The disaster is understood to have struck the region between 10.15 am and 10.30 am on Sunday (some accounts place it between 9.30 am and 10.30 am). A team of 300 ITBP personnel was rushed to the region.

    Vivek Pandey, ITBP spokesperson, told this author over the phone: “We reached there within an hour. The initial inputs on reaching there were about 100-150 people missing.”

    The two tunnels were in focus. The possibility of people trapped drove the team efforts. "Jeevit hone ki jo sambhavna thee wo do tunnels ke andar thee (If there was a chance of survival it was inside the two tunnels). We started the digging work in the smaller tunnel. Lagbhag chaar ghante ka samay lagaa humko usko nikaalne mein. Ek ek karke humne 12 logon ko nikala, (It took us around four hours to excavate that. One by one we rescued four people)" Pandey adds. He said three people needed oxygen aid and care due to hypothermia and other reasons.

    The other tunnel was situated at a distance of two and a half km from this one. Dhauli Ganga was raging as it was flooded with the glacier breach and brought with it mud and slush. The night operations would face this expected challenge. He adds, "wahan bhi hum log pahunche aur raat ko operation jaari raha. (We reached even there and operations continued through the night)"

    The amount of malvaa (slush) at this tunnel was huge. "Bahut zyada malvaa tha. Aur saath ke saath wahan paani badhne laga tha Dhauli Ganga ka. (There was lot of slush and along with that waters of the Dhauli Ganga began increasing)"

    Those posed some difficulties to the night operations. The water level of the Dhauli Ganga began to rise. The operations could have been faster, he adds, “ek tareeke se rescue operation thoda fast ho sakta tha. (In a way, the rescue operations could have been faster)"

    On Monday morning, the water level decreased. Work resumed. Machines were taken inside the tunnel.

    One tunnel has been opened to about 80 metres with the help of the non-stop efforts of the personnel deployed. "We could reach the site in an hour's time.

    Debris is expected to pose a challenge to the team in the next set of stretch to be cleared — which is about 100 metres. This will help the rescue team to scan the whereabouts of people trapped. There are inputs of more than 30 people trapped there.

    An official overseeing the disaster management says that the tunnel was completely "packed" (with slush, mud etc). It is being opened with the joint efforts of the ITBP, the army, NDRF, SDRF and state police. "It is more than 2 km long. Jaise jaise khul jaayega, fir wo andar scan karna padega (it is more than 2km long, it will be scanned as and when it opens up).”

    This will be followed by rescue operations. Those alive will be rescued, if there are bodies, they will be recovered. The focus is on this one tunnel. “Man power is sufficiently deployed and (there is) no issue,” the official added.

    It's a challenging task and no guesswork can be applied to the progress that will be made today (Monday), he added.

    The teams are working continuously with the hope of entering the cleared space in the tunnel, further, by today (Monday) evening.

    The ITBP personnel are using a vital element in the rescue operations. These are planks of wood.

    The site has slush as the biggest challenge. Nearly five feet of mud and slush that could surround and engulf the legs of the men force. "Tunnel ki height poori 12 feet ke aaspaas hai. Agar humko panch feet bhi mil jaaye, jahan hum loag ghus paayen, toh poori situation ka abhaas ho jaayega. (The tunnel's height is about 12 feet. Even if we can reach up to five feet on entry, we can take a stock of the whole situation)"

    The tunnel — approximately 12 feet in height will pose at least 5 feet of slush. The wooden planks would become the instruments of progress and progression into the tunnel.

    The state administration helped with the wooden planks and other such material needed.

    More than 100 planks will be arranged for. These will be used to progress into the tunnel by team members who venture inside. The team has a backup of equipment and material from the army engineers and NDRF in this joint effort. It includes cutting machines.

    The disaster response mechanism has visibly improved. The weather and a bright day helped — presenting a row of relieving contrasts to the Kedarnath floods of 2013 — when the river banks suffered and hence the roads suffered.

    Directing the rage of water and the raging waters to decrease the impact to banks and roads, along with the caution towards the downstream plays an important role in disaster management. The weather stayed helpful.

    "In 2013, the rescue work was met by inclement weather. Nadee ko koi roka nahin kiseenee. Nadi ne poori tabahi machai dono chhoron par (Nobody checked the river in 2013. It wreck havoc on both the banks). It took away bridges. Bridges have been impacted this time as well, but the banks have not suffered. The roads have not been impacted," he adds.

    One of the labourers trapped inside the tunnel was carrying a mobile phone when the disaster struck. He became a beacon of hope and rescue.

    The labourer guided the team to the location. "It is a big example of how improved network can save lives and improve our response to disasters. It is a lesson in improving networking."

    In situations like these, water and its flow is unpredictable. To keep an eye on water and to maintain constant monitoring of the flow, the team installed look outs.

    Men on the "look out" warned and coordinated with the help of warning whistles at different spots, keeping an eye on the water flow and warning the team members working to clear the tunnels and related actions.

    Minimum strength of men force was working to keep the numbers at the lowest and to avoid any possibility of impact on the team in case of an emergency that could arrive in the shape of unpredictable water flow.

    Disaster in the Himalayas comes with its own unpredictable events. There is a risk of a follow up disaster.

    Rescue teams have to count in this aspect when working during natural disasters. Memories of the Malpa tragedy are a great reminder of the unpredictability that eerily looms at the disaster sites. "Pahaadon mein rescue mein dhyaan rakhna padta hai ki aap bhi kaheen uska shikar na ban jaaen (During rescue ops in mountains, you have to be careful lest you end up becoming a victim). Malpa tragedy mein poora Malpa gaon dabb gaya tha aur hamare bhi saat jawanon ki casualty hui thi. Lagataar patthar gir rahe the upar se (In the Malpa tragedy, the entire Malpa village was buried and seven of our jawans were also casualties. Boulders were falling constantly", Pandey adds.

    ITBP had suffered causalities in the Malpa tragedy owing to the falling debris at the site.

    This time, the rescue operations, the improved response to disaster, will be about moving every inch of slush and debris to save each life and rescue bodies from the mouth of a disaster with utmost care towards a counter impact as well.

    Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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