On Sunday I woke up to news of the tragedy in Uttarakhand. Thousands of questions came to my mind. Was it another Kedarnath? Which reporter would be sent? At least one question was answered when I received a call from work. Can you go to Uttarakhand, they asked. Yes, I quickly replied. And soon, I was on my way with my cameraperson Ashwini Mehra.
The first stop was Rishikesh at 11pm on Sunday, hours after the landslide. All the ghats of the Ganges were cleared of tourists by the state administration, with police cars blaring out warnings of river waters rising anytime.
The only cars on the roads at Rishikesh were those of the media or the state administration. "Will there be floods? What has happened?" We faced many questions from residents but had no answers.
The next morning, before sunrise, I started my journey to Joshimath at over 6,000 feet in the mountains. En route, I took in the growing number of missing people and the damage to property.
The journey was long and difficult. The entire route from Rishikesh to Joshimath was dotted with signs of landslides that had taken place in the past month.
People on the way said, "You are from the media. Please speak about the constant cutting of mountains in the region in the name of development."
In Joshimath, we were guided to the Tapovan area that took the maximum impact of the glacier burst. Two power plants were washed away and scores of workers were carried along with the torrent.
The first visuals of the NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) hydro power plant were of unbelievable devastation. Only mud and debris remain where the 520 megawatt project was coming up.
Fifteen years of work, gone in 60 seconds.
NTPC officials said such projects were planned with 100 years of climate patterns taken into account; no one had imagined such a thing.
As I walked to the site, a man looked at the NDTV mic I was holding and approached me. Roshan Lal, 60, was in tears, frantically looking for his missing son, a welder at the project. Hundreds started gathering, looking for their loved ones, and the crowds would swell in the next few days.
Those at the site did not even get 30 seconds to try and escape the wall of water.
I was told the Raini bridge and the NTPC barrage stood in the way of the flash flood and villages downstream; had it not been for these structures, many more lives would have been lost.
More lives were saved because it was a Sunday and only a fifth of the workers were at the site.
The biggest rescue effort was on at a tunnel where 37 workers were believed to be trapped. Several agencies worked together for hours and through the night to clear a way into the tunnel. Their work was harder than it looked, I realized the moment I took a few steps towards the tunnel. My feet were stuck in the sludge left by the flash floods.
The same sludge blocked the one opening into the tunnel, several hundred meters of it, and to remove it was a giant effort for the army, the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
The opening of the tunnel was just wide enough for one earthmover to work at a time. The moment they removed sludge from one inlet, double the amount poured in from another inlet, which could not be blocked as it was submerged in the river.
But the rescuers soldiered on, powered by optimism and the desperation of families. They told me they would not stop until they found the trapped men.
At sunset, in the fading light, they reassured the families they would carry on through the night. They kept at it till the next day. The slow progress had worried relatives confronting the teams in anger.
Many in the area took it upon themselves to feed the rescue teams and the media.
I went 3 km ahead to the Raini village that was the closest to the Rishiganga hydro power plant, a smaller project that was wiped out. A bridge that connected the India-China border with the rest of the region was also washed away, cutting off 13 villages from the rest of the country.
Officers and jawans of the Border Road Organisation worked on both banks of the river Dholiganga to make temporary arrangements, with choppers providing help and equipment.
After over 72 hours, only the sight of continuing rescue ops gave the families of the missing something to cling to.
Many in Raini village are in grief, their family members either dead or missing. Some said when they first heard the roaring waters, their first thought was a Chinese attack. Incidentally, a news channel even aired the theory of a Chinese conspiracy behind the Uttarakhand disaster.
The author is a Reporter at NDTV
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