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An inspired tale of heroism under pressure as India's men in uniform save the day for a grateful nation in Uttarakhand's hour of tragedy. Mayank Singh reports from the spot. Photographs by Sujan Singh and Ajit Krishna

Where Eagles Dare

 

MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: July 21, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Uttarakhand disaster | IAF | ITBP | MI 17 | Operation Ganga Prahar |
 

The unsaid truth about all natural disasters runs a familiar course. In absolute distress when the chips are down; when systems have broken down, when no civic worker or state police force is within hundreds of miles, when the already minimal and overstretched infrastructure has collapsed and millions need to be rescued from certain death, it is India’s defence forces that save the day for everyone – a grateful nation, its tunnel vision politicians and inept civilian administrations.

The unbridled gush of water – normally a delight in the tourist season – that subjected Uttarakhand, or more specifically Garhwal, to its worst ever disaster in the form of recent flash floods, was a searing warning of nature’s fury. It was by all accounts unstoppable. In those hours of hell, it appeared that nothing would be enough to stop the holocaust – except for our men in uniform.

For those victims who had given up hope of ever seeing another day, the sight  of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) green overalls, the combat fatigues of the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police - with a helping hand from brave members of the Uttarakhand Police and the local civil administration - were rejuvenating in the extreme.

Tall, strapping and nimble footed Colonel Sandip Chatterjee, who prefers to answer in mono syllables, is one such guy. His red eyes and those of his team sending supplies to the ‘boys’ up ahead is a sign of the long strenuous hours and lack of sleep that have gone into attaining twin objectives: to rescue people trapped in inaccessible areas and locate the debris of the hapless MI 17 rescue helicopter that crashed on June 25.

Chatterjee, in charge of the army’s Special Forces operating there, had another job at hand; he had to somehow develop helipads by blasting rocks. A wrong move or turn could mean the end of the road – quite literally.

Or Wing Commander Ravi Pathak, who has a look similar to Colonel Chatterjee’s. As he speaks to his pilots sitting under the shade of a white tent along the runway of Gauchar, the nerve centre of IAF’s helicopter operations, there is a black cordless phone which he holds along his left cheek, constantly monitoring the weather, looking at the skies and then again at his men.

The situation at the Gauchar air strip has an all pervasive psychological gloom, not much different from a combat station in a forward area. Words like ‘alive and dead’ fly around as if discussing the latest score of a cricket match. Naturally, with events moving at breakneck pace, it cannot be any other way. The only point of solace are the welcoming cheers of those lucky to be alive and their long lost family members, astounded by their good luck and the marathon task undertaken by the IAF in their rescue missions.

Family cackle, however, does not drown the high decibel generated by Wing Commander Nikhil Naidu. “Where do I start from,’’ he wonders. Even for crack pilots such as him, the scenes of devastation and death are numbing. A question as to what he had seen on his rescue mission became an opportunity to vent out all spleen brewing since day one. He remembers: ‘‘It all came as a shock to me as I had not imagined the kind of devastation that lay before my eyes once I entered the narrow valleys looking for signs of life. Life was visible but it was overwhelmed by the presence of debris and dead human beings all around.”


For us and others in the tent, the emotional quotient is quite understandable. Here are men trained to fight enemies in alien lands, now combating hard against time to save every life – that every life belonging to a fellow countryman and well within their own territory. The ability to fit into any given situation is what marks out the men from the boys.

In the middle of all this activity, suddenly the black cordless springs to life and Wing Commander Ravi Pathak excuses himself to take the call on the other side of the tent. Here it becomes easy to understand how the fighters are trained to keep their emotions aside when it comes to performing their duties. The death, destruction and the sheer fury of the rivers in spate are no deterrent for them. Then suddenly a voice bawls out: “Whatever, we have to keep the machine ready and it is to fly by 4.” This is Wing Commander TS Puri. Puri’s team of engineers and technicians was responsible for keeping these complex machines up and ready for the pilots to take off. Puri and his crack team of two senior engineers, three chief technicians and 35 technicians are entrusted to not just keep the checks in place but also to overhaul or rectify technical snags arising due to flying in extremely turbulent weather.

Helicopters leaving Gauchar on those eventful days were testing their limits so as to save as many lives as possible. Naturally, this required unlimited sorties by every machine - as much as safety and the weather permitted.

To add to Puri’s predicament, he had the daunting task of raising infrastructure at a place which is bereft of even the most basic air traffic control facility with just one hangar standing. But even with these constraints, Puri and his team were able to accomplish a 50-hour overhauling of a Dhruv helicopter with extremely limited resources.

Most officers present proudly narrate the sequence of that overhaul, a child-like sense of achievement reflecting on every face of Puri’s technical team when he reached the milestone. Needless to say, it is this palpable excitement present in every man and officer involved in rescue missions, codenamed Operation Rahat by the IAF and Operation Ganga Prahar by the army.

With the operation bearing fruit, it soon dawned upon those present that this was the biggest ever chopper excercise of its kind undertaken. It has been life changing for a vast population and a learning curve for the men in action.

Often in the desperation, the rear guard action would assume different forms. For Wing Commander SM Yunus who was among the first team of pilots to reconnaiter the area of devastation, the dilemma  was acute: in his 20-seater chopper near Kedarnath, there was one place to be had between a mother and her daughter. In the end he persuaded the girl to come on board with a toffee he normally carried for his two children. For the mother, it became a case of ensuring that the child was safe in the hands of the IAF, in case she was not able to make it.
For some other air warriors the deadly valleys became a meeting place. Flight Lieutenant Akshat Dubey and Flight Lieutenant Shishir Sharma were roommates while at training at the Air Force Academy, Hyderabad, three years ago. Once they were commissioned they were able to talk on phones but unable to meet due to postings in different places.

Uttarakhand changed all that. Operation Rahat came as test of the skill, training and endurance they received during their academic courses. They too are saddened like the others about the enormous loss of life but like true professionals, did not get carried away by the enormity of the occasion. Akshat believes these operations gave him an opportunity to not just test the limits of his own mental strength while working in the precariously narrow - and picturesque- valleys of Kedarnath, but also make him feel more confident of the giant machine he operates – a MI 17 V5. “My commanding officer was helping us to understand the machine better as this was new to us having arrived just a month ago,’’ he says. Now, Akshat is doubly confident about the kind of tasks he as the captain of the newly-acquired machine can perform.

For Flight Lieutenant Shishir Sharma, it has been nothing short of a paradigm shift. His area of operation is Leh where there are wide valleys and no obstructions but this was different. ‘‘Leh is like a highway where you need a different attitude and to fly in the narrow valleys of the mountains of Uttarakhand is like flying into a narrow lane with huge and powerful machines,” he recalls.

Says Group Captain Sandeep Mehta, Defence pro at Gauchar, “The kind of professional hand our young officers have displayed bodes well for the services and the country. Young impressionable minds have not only performed but are also carrying with them lessons which will serve as an inspiration for them in raising their services’ performance.’’ Truly onerous tasks undertaken and executed, but as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Lessons Learnt

There was no information for a week until the army stepped in

As the swirling waters threatened to consume large parts of the Garhwal, there was no information about its worst-hit areas, namely between Gaurikund to Rambara, for nearly a week since calamity struck on June 16.
On June 21, the army decided to press in its specialised para troopers from Agra. They were to be inserted at selected places with the aim to conduct reconnaissance and affect rescue.

Each team was split into five and ten and included the army engineer’s explosives experts. The window of opportunity was small as crucial time was getting lost. Their spot analyses had concluded that the general area of focus was to be the Jungle Chatti. These troops are trained to operate in hostile conditions and are self contained for six to seven days of survival. Their back pack which weighed around 40 kilos contains survival ration, life saving equipment, explosives, communication equipment.

The various teams from Rambada and Gaurikund were to link up at Jungle Chatty, thus combing the area in between. Lieutenant Kaushik and Subedar Major Rajkumar were assigned to open routes. They were also to create helipads. A bigger helipad was to be set up with the help of explosives at Gaurikund.

Early morning of June 22 Colonel Sandip Chatterjee went on a recce on an Army Aviation helicopter at a very low hover. Lieutenant Colonel Manoj Tripathi who was leading the army aviation team calls it one of the toughest operations he had faced: he had to keep an eye on the surroundings, aware that the valley was so narrow that his machine could touch it anytime. Recalls Tripathi,‘‘to fly at such a low height becomes precarious’’.That is the understatement of the year. The Jungle Chatti was swarming with people – people who had come pretty close to death in the last five days or so. The frenzy was so extreme that the desperate mob was ready to maul each other and get into the relief choppers. It is here that the officers and men used their leadership skills in not just reassuring but also convincing people to be cool in times of crisis. The order of priority was clear with women, children and old infirm persons on top of the list of evacuees. It worked. People, who till then were unwilling to walk, were convinced to change their minds. Three Cheetah helicopters did around 85 sorties and were assisted by even more powerful Advanced Light Helicopters. It was these para troopers who were dropped at the site where hapless MI 17 V5 helicopter had crashed and all 20 defence personnel on board had perished.

The topography presented major challenges; the cliffs were positioned at 85 degree slopes. Squadron Leader Vinay Bhal was the leader of the IAF’s crack Garud team. He along with the others stayed for two nights in their makeshift tents and gradually picked up the remains of those martyred. There is also a personal aside.For Wing Commander Raghuraman, the worst-hit areas were the ones he was most familiar with. He along with his family, parents and brother’s family had earlier completed the Chaar Dhaam yatra. Even in the destruction, he could recognise remains of the buildings he had visited along with his family and the good time spent there.
‘‘Physical and mental toughness is the hallmark of our special forces,’’ says Colonel Chatterjee with pride in  his voice.’’ It showed amply in Uttarakhand.

'We crossed the limits of human endurance'

Lieutenant General N.S Bawa, AVSM, GOC Uttar Bharat Area, talks to Mayank Singh. Excerpts:

What was army’s reaction when informed about the cloudburst and accompanying landslide?

We have units and sub-units deployed in Uttarakhand within the very area where tragedy struck. We are as much affected by it as the civilians. As soon as we got the information, we realised this problem is going to be serious and the army will be called in. We carried our own appreciation and on June 18, I moved the tactical head quarter from Bareilly to Dehradoon for better coordination and synergy with the civil administration.

What was assessment during the initial phase of the cloud burst?

Although it was clear that the problem was big, there were no details about the extent of damage and destruction in the various valleys. After June 19, a large number of reports started pouring in from Gangotri, Harsil, Badrinath and Kedarnath.

What approach did you follow to mitigate the loss of life due to devastation?

The state government requisitioned the army for assistance in evacuating people, providing relief and any other assistance as was possible. The same day we moved in our aviation assets. We followed a concept to achieve the optimum in minimum possible time. The concept was searching for survivors, collecting them and bringing them to a safe place where they could be provided with food, water and medical assistance and to reassure them that they were in safe hands. People from Gangotri were brought to Harsil and people from all over in Mana and Joshimath were brought to Badrinath. For the Kedarnath valley we had setup our camp at Gaurikund. This was called exercise Surya Hope Phase I.  A stage came when our troops gave away their rations and were left with just one day of food stuff.  We were improvising ways like building Burma bridges and flying fox to overcome the river's fury.It needed constant work.

What was the most difficult part?

The entire area of Jungle Chatti was inaccessible and whatever relief material was being dropped, a lot of it was falling into the Mandakini River. In the second phase of Surya Hope, we focused on the people in this area. We had to deploy special forces. There was no road and we had to form helicopter bridges with smaller ones operating to collect people at one point and from there bigger helicopters were picking them. It was like starting from scratch.

Was it all very stressing?

We are trained both physically and mentally to operate in difficult conditions. In the course of this operation though, we crossed the limits of human endurance. 

 

Mayank.Singh@thesundayindian.com

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Post CommentsPost Comments
Posted By: Philip Verghese 'Ariel' | Secunderabad | July 14th 2013 | 00:07
A BIG Salute to our Para Military Forces, for their great service to the Nation, Keep Up the Good works My dear Brothers!!!
Posted By: Rina Chakravarti | Toronto, Canada | August 24th 2013 | 11:08
Thank you for this article. I wish I had remembered the faces of those who saved me, wrapped mw in an army blanket before putting me in the relief helicopter I believe that took me to Gupta Kashi hospital. I salute them. I also salute the kind local person who carried my bag to Gaurikund from Rambara, when he saw I was unable to walk. I forgot I had my passport and everything else in that bag, he walked faster, so everything was taken for lost as I never made it to Gaurikund. I wish could find him some day and pay him what he had asked for, By the grace of the divine I was re-united with my passport in a miraculous way. I saw this article today, so don't know if any one will read it. Its okay




Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017