Rescue teams evacuated over 10,000 stranded people on Saturday from various upper reaches of flood-ravaged Uttarakhand in a race against time. In all, 70,000 stranded people have been brought to safety in the mammoth ongoing multi-agency operations and more than 22,000 remain to be evacuated according to information given by the Centre and the State Government. Army and ITBP are working round the clock to evacuate the stranded people.
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By Saturday evening Kedarnath and Gaurikund have been totally evacuated except the 147 sadhus who refused to leave.
While Sunday the weather may stabilise, those engaged in the operations are worried about the rain forecast for Monday and Tuesday that could hamper their work.
“The death toll is likely to be around 1,000,” Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told reporters as the Himalayan tragedy unfolded after the gushing waters left behind a trail of death and destruction. The death toll is expected to rise further.
For more helpline numbers: Uttarakhand helpline numbers
A conclusive figure can be arrived at only after the slush and debris under which bodies could be buried are cleared, he said.
Officials said 123 bodies were recovered from the Kedarnath temple complex raising the official death toll to 680. Army officials said 83 bodies were identified and handed over to authorities.
Mounting the biggest-ever operation to evacuate people from a disaster zone in peace time, 61 helicopters, including 43 of IAF and 11 of the Army, were deployed. World’s biggest Russian-made MI-26 helicopters that can carry about 150 passengers were pressed into service.
Information and Broadcating Minister Manish Tewari told reporters in New Delhi that while the Army and ITBP rescued 4,000 people each, air force chipped in to move the rest.
Former Home Secretary VK Duggal, who is also a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, has been appointed to coordinate the work of various agencies in rescue and relief operations.
Having several brushes with death, survivors of the Himalayan Tsunami which left a trail of destruction in Uttarakhand were all praise for Army, which they said has given them a second life.
Sukhvinder Singh, a Ludhiana native who was stuck for eight days on the way to Hemkund Sahib, said, “I was en route to Hemkund Sahib when the disaster struck. The situation was deteriorating with the passage of time…We were bit relieved when Army stepped in. They gave us food and water and helped us in every possible way. Had they not been here, we wouldn’t have survived.”
Recalling his horrific experiences during the past few days, Aman Bisht, who arranges treks to Hemkund Sahib every year, said, “The road links were shattered and down there we had no bridges left. And even if there was a road somewhere, it was broken. The Army has been very supportive.” Another survivor from Punjab, who was rescued from Joshi Math, said he was able to contact his family only with the help of army personnel.
One Sharan, who along with his family was rescued from Badrinath and brought to Chamouli relief camp yesterday, said, “The situation is pathetic. Had the Army not been there, we would not have any chance of coming back ever.”
Officials in-charge of rescue operations said that their mission was on at full throttle.
The machines at the helipad were all privately-operated ones. Each could at best carry a handful of people. Grossly inadequate when compared to the colossal magnitude of the human tragedy caused by nature’s fury on the fateful night of June 17.
But for eyes scouring the skies for the conditions to clear, the helicopter seems to be the only hope. Although Rakesh Sharma, the Uttarakhand Principal Secretary in-charge of rescue operations, said that a land route from Gaurikund till Rishikesh had been cleared.
“30,000 people are coming down by road. 4,000 people, who are among the critical cases, are still left in and around Kedarnath. But all will be rescued by today or tomorrow,” Sharma said at Sahasradhara.
Whatever sliver of hope is available, people appear to be clinging to it with an intensity of faith only visible when something precious is at stake.
They flock to any new arrivals among the survivors, hoping that he or she would have some good news.
Dinesh Bhagwari was one of the first to be evacuated from Guptkashi. He was at Sahasradhara on Saturday, waiting for a helicopter to bring him his 17-year-old son, still stranded in Kedarnath.
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“A little after 8 pm. I heard shouts ‘aa gaya’, ‘aa gaya’. Everybody started running towards the temple. I too followed with my son. There were some 200-odd people with us. I am sure all of them managed to get out safe. But those who could not reach higher ground in time…Well, the Lord takes care of us all,” Bhagwari says.
As to his son, Bhagwari said he saw him last on June 18, before he was airlifted.
“He was safe and secure. He asked me to leave first and said he would follow. But there’s still no sign of him arriving here. But i’m sure he is safe,” Bhagwari concludes, looking straight ahead, his focus seemingly on some faraway object and not on those standing around him.
Being on higher ground was the stroke of luck which saved a family from Rajasthan, among them two children.
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Sharmilee Jawda, 16, had climbed the hills around Kedarnath with her family members just before the cloud burst hit the valley. There were two children with them – her brothers, one aged 11, another slightly younger aged eight years.
“It turned out we were at a safe height when the boulders came rolling down. Many others, too, managed to reach where we were. We had to remain there two days… no food, no water,” she said.
Asked about the airdropped food packets, she said they could hardly get hold of any, there were too many people.
She was brought back yesterday with her brothers and her mother. Her uncle, who had rushed here from their hometown, was waiting for them when they landed by helicopter.
But her father and other members of their group are yet to reach Dehradun. They have been located and are safe, her uncle Chandrakant said. “They should arrive here shortly,” he was confident.
The ordeal then seems over for this family. But scars will remain.
“What did you see after it quietened down?” one reporter asked Sharmilee in her room at the Jolly Grant hospital, close to the airport.
“What could one have seen after all that destruction?” was her retort.
At the Doon Hospital, talking to Raj Kishore Trivedi, one knows exactly what the young Sharmilee means.
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Trivedi was the owner of a souvenir shop which stood right outside Kedarnath temple. Like much else in that area, his establishment is now a mound of slush and rubble.
He survived with a broken leg. On his hospital bed, it was not so much a survivor one saw as a man lost in thoughts, responding absently to questions of his and his family members’ well-being.
They are all well and safe though, he confirmed. What is uncertain is the future.
(With inputs from agencies)
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