Uttarakhand disaster: 18 bodies recovered, 202 people still missing as rescue operation continues
‘Our focus is to save 37 people who are stuck in a tunnel in Tapovan. The tunnel is filled with debris which has come with river. We are using machines to clear the way,’ a senior ITBP official said
The rescue operation to save people who got stuck in the power project tunnels in Uttarakhand after a glacier burst led to release of a torrent of water which damaged two hydropower projects continued the whole night. So far, 18 bodies have been recovered while 202 people are missing.
“The focus is now to save 37 people who are stuck in a tunnel in Tapovan. The tunnel is filled with debris which has come with the river. We are using machines to clear the way,” H Gurung, a senior official of Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) said.
ITBP, along with the Army and Air Force, is carrying out the rescue operation in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand where this tragedy struck on Sunday morning.
Gurung said the teams worked the whole night with heavy machines. “Our aim is to reach out to the people who are stuck and are probably alive,” he said.
The torrent of water which flew with massive speed caught the people unaware and badly damaged the power project in Rishiganga. The project was commissioned in 2020 and 35 people were working there. But the Dhaliganga power project was under construction.
“There were two tunnels in this project. In one tunnel, 12 people were rescued yesterday while rescue work is on in the other. The mouth of the second tunnel, called Tapovan tunnel, was blocked with boulders and mud which came with the gushing Alaknanda river,” senior government official S A Murugesan told this reporter on telephone.
He said that the rescue team was able to open the mouth of the Tapovan tunnel and enter the tunnel.
The official claimed that the tragedy has so far claimed 18 lives and 202 people were still missing.
“We do not know exactly how many people were working in these sites. Even the officials of these two power projects do not have details. The records of that day have got washed away as there is nothing left at the site. So, the number of missing people can even go up or may come down,” Murugesan said.
“The only solace for us is that the casualties among nearby villagers, who also used to work at the site, are low. As the tragedy occurred on Sunday, the people from these villages did not go to the power project. Only five villagers had reported to work in Rishiganga power project and all of them have died. Their bodies have been recovered downstream,” the official said.
The 12 people who were rescued from another tunnel are convalescing in a govt-run hospital in Chamoli.
The government has issued an alert in all the downstream districts about recovery of any body. Regular monitoring is being done at the riversides and villagers have been alerted about the recovery of any dead body.
Rakesh Bhatt, one of the workers who was rescued, said that there is little hope of finding more survivors. “We were working in the tunnel and suddenly water gushed in. We stopped our machines and climbed up on them. We thought that it might have started raining and water will recede. But when we saw mud and debris entering the tunnel with great speed, we realized something big has happened,” he told this reporter.
Bhatt said one of them had a mobile phone and were able to connect to officials. “We waited for almost six hours – sometimes praying to God and sometimes joking with each other to keep our spirits high. I was the first to be rescued and it is a great relief,” he said.
Environmentalists have blamed climate change and construction of power projects and roads in the fragile mountainous region of Uttarakhand for the glacier burst behind the Chamoli tragedy.
Director of Uttarakhand Space Application Center, Prof Mahendra Singh Bisht said that till January 3 there was no indication of creation of a natural lake.
“There are large landslides in the affected valley as the mountain is very fragile. It leads to falling of rocks which obstruct the path of the river. The detachment of ice rock from a glacier can stop the flow of river. It forms a temporary lake. As the pressure of water and debris build up, the lake bursts open and the water flows down with a torrent and it can wash way anything which comes in its way,” Prof Bisht said, adding that probably this is what might have happened on Sunday.