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Friday, June 28, 2013

In Death Valley, the beret matters

In Death Valley, the beret matters

At the Jungle Chatti helipad on Sunday, paratroopers prepare for the last round of evacuation. Picture by Nishit Dholabhai

Gauchar, June 27: There is something surreal about sitting by a helipad in the midst of death and disaster and chatting about a Hollywood film.

But here, among the para-commandos and the rescuers with whom I had trekked from Jungle Chatti on the Kedarnath route, it offered a peek into the minds of the men who were rescuers risking their own lives.

A day after that trek, these men had gone off again, slithering down from helicopters into a gorge and on a mountainside in search of survivors and then bringing back the bodies of the 20 men killed in the Mi-17 V5 crash.

Last week, led by their commanding officer, the bandana-strapped Colonel Sandip Chatterjee, the men of the 6 and 7 Paras, along with rescuers from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), had lopped off some trees, uprooted electricity poles and planted explosives in the jagged rocks and blasted them to hew a helipad out of nowhere.

Within hours, they also had a campsite, complete with a communications area and a kitchen.

That little station in "Death Valley" had made it possible for the Army Aviation Corps' Cheetah helicopters to land and evacuate the stranded people in Jungle Chatti over the weekend. Mixed teams of 6, 7 and 9 Paras were dropped into the gorges here at different spots on June 21 to extricate survivors.

Sitting by that helipad, where the stench of death mingled with the aroma of freshly brewed tea on Sunday evening, Major Bhadoria told Captain Rajendra Panchal and the soldiers around them the story of the blockbuster, A Bridge Too Far.

"So now you understand the value of your maroon beret?" he asked. "It is from the colour of blood." Paratroopers and Special Forces wear maroon berets.

Job done, we set off towards Gaurikund, a journey of just 2.5km that took nearly five hours. The men wore T-shirts with "Airborne" embossed on them.

They had had biscuits to go with the tea as the major narrated scenes from A Bridge Too Far, starring a host of stars such as Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery and Robert Redford, which tells the story of a failed Allied attempt to break through German lines and seize bridges during World War II.

A scene in the film shows a British soldier being shot dead by a sniper after retrieving an air-dropped container under enemy fire. When the soldier falls, the container splits open to reveal berets.

The Paras had lived up to that beret's spirit with daredevil rescue missions 10,000 feet down the Kedarnath gorge a few days ago. They would again live up to it days later — on Wednesday — to retrieve the bodies of fellow IAF, ITBP and NDRF personnel who were in the crashed Mi-17 V5.

These Special Forces of the army had been summoned on June 20 to Dehradun. They slid down the ropes from choppers into the Gorge of Devastation. Rescue over, evacuation was a problem. They made that helipad in a day.

An engineer surveyed the spot, wired explosives to blow off rocks and electricity poles and cleared the ground to let Cheetahs and Chetaks land on what NDRF commandant Jaideep Singh had thought was an "impossible place to land".

"Be our guest," a smiling Bhadoria had said shortly afterwards.

In the two days that we were there and through the trek we had jumped over maggot-infested bodies of people who had tried — and failed — to clamber up slopes to escape the flood.

Clothes, blankets, unused food packets and walking sticks littered the place.

One night, over a bowl of khichri, Captain Panchal recalled how he had found a 14-year-old from Lucknow, who had fallen down in a landslide.

When Panchal glided down the rope from a helicopter, he found the boy digging into the mud. "My mother and sister have gone to fetch water," the teenager told him, glassy-eyed. "Call them," the boy said.

Panchal had seen this before among survivors in a state of shock who seemed as if they were beyond pain.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder," explained the unit's para-commando doctor, Ritish Goyal. The boy did not know it then — his mother and sister, who got separated from him, had been rescued by another team. The family was reunited later.

The night the captain was retelling the boy's trauma, the weatherman had forecast heavy rain. But the evacuation of Jungle Chatti was complete.

Next morning, equipped with ropes, carabiners (a metal loop or safety coupling used by climbers) and wireless sets, a team was already on the way to Rambada searching for survivors who may have climbed up the heights.

As the rains lashed, L. Sunder Meetei of the NDRF contacted commandant Singh, who had left a day earlier, to seek permission to fall back as the risks of a landslide increased every minute.

"Sir, bahut barish hone wala hai, phir nikal nahin payenge (it's going to rain heavily, we won't be able to move if we do not now)," Meetei said as the wireless crackled.

The commandant flashed the green light.

Behind Meetei, the Paras' Havildar Chand Khan offered a popular soft drink as we prepared to embark on the treacherous return journey, first to Bhairon Mandir and onward to Gaurikund.

"Darr ke aage jeet hai," said Khan, quoting from a tele-commercial. He showed the thread strung around his wrist by a unit priest or maulana. "Hamare wahan to MMGC (Mandir Masjid Gurdwara Church) hai, to hausle rakkho," he laughed, breaking into a Hindi film song.

Minutes later, a joint team of grey-uniformed NDRF, camouflaged Paras and a rag-tag group of five civilians began the walk. It was a steep climb up a hill. I wonder now if that was the hill on which the V5 crashed.

Then it was time for a steep climb downhill.

I slipped.

"Sir, rope mat chhoriye, rope pakar ke rakkho," the havildar, who was assigned to be my buddy, and Goyal, the doctor, chorused. The army works in twos, almost always.

It was a 50-foot drop. I did what they told me — held on to the rope and somehow found a foothold.

The road from Gaurikund to Kedarnath has caved in at many places. Special Forces, the NDRF and mountaineers like Avadhesh Bhatt from Dehradun created alternative routes and accompanied over 150 pilgrims. The soldiers tied ropes to trees and rocks that rose 6,500 feet above the river that cut through the continuous gorge.

The last stretch just before Gaurikund involves scaling a cliff. Gaurikund is a ghost village, devastated by the raging river. The Paras walked away.

The NDRF accompanied this correspondent on a 6km walk to Sonprayag. Just before Sonprayag, we came across a devastated mountain and an NDRF team blew a whistle — rocks were falling. The rocks missed us.

Here, where the Son river merges into the Mandakini, the riverbed has risen by 25 metres. Truck tyres were visible. The vehicle, swept in by a strong current, was buried beneath the boulders.

Then we saw an NDRF group waiting for us and a makeshift camp, near the point from where the road had been devoured.

There was tea at the NDRF langar.

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