Gauchar/Joshimath: On 14 June, when constable Kuldeep Singh Mehra of the Uttarakhand Armed Police reached Kedarnath, teeming crowds of pilgrims had taken up every inch of space in the temple town. The lodges were bursting, and the tide of people going up the 14km trek route—by foot, horse, mule or on the back of porters—was relentless. In season, 10,000-12,000 people visit the area every day.

Mehra, 27, squat, square-jawed and with large forearms, was back in service after a month’s holiday to celebrate the birth of his first baby. That night he called his wife, heard his baby crying, and went to sleep content.

The next morning, when the first rains fell, Mehra was pleased—it would offer some respite from the push-and-shove of the pilgrims, cool things down a little, perhaps even stem the flow of yatris.

Just a few kilometres from the holy shrine of Kedarnath, Ghanshyam Sharma and his wife Shanti were on muleback and did not enjoy the rain quite as much. Ghanshyam, a gaunt and erect 78-year-old, and his wife, 70, and a little hard of hearing, were from a small village in Rajasthan and had never seen snowy mountains. For five years, they had planned this visit.

“Shanti was having a little difficulty breathing," Ghanshyam said, “We were so high in the mountain (around 11,000ft), and there were so many people, but we saw the temple and felt, yes, we don’t need anything else, we’ve got the last wish of our life."

The morning turned into afternoon, the drizzle into a downpour.

The Sharmas were anxious as they made their way down to Rambara, a traveller’s settlement 7km from Kedarnath. Mehra, too, was a little worried. The footpath was already turning into slush.

For three-and-a-half days, the rain did not stop.

The water rises

By the afternoon of 16 June, the water was waist-deep in places, knee-deep in others. The path below Kedarnath had been washed away in various places. Mehra watched as two lodges a few hundred metres above the main temple complex collapsed. Thousands of panicked people rushed to get into the temple. Others ran into hotels and shops. Mehra made his way inside the temple. At around 7pm, with the temple walls echoing with wails, prayers, and shrieks, large boulders began rolling into the town, slamming against the shrine.

“My stomach turned with every thud," says Mehra. “We all thought, this is it, there is an earthquake, and it will kill us all." No one inside the temple slept that night. Mehra tried to peep outside, but could see nothing. He only heard the ominous sounds of gushing water, and every once in a while, earth-shattering claps that made the whole temple shake.

The Sharmas were in a worse predicament. They had reached Rambara in the afternoon, only to find the entire settlement washed out, and the thin trail churning with water and rocks. People were scrambling up the mountainside in desperation as the water rose in volume and ferocity.

“Then, I saw a little boy, 6-7 years old, who was trying to climb the mountain holding his mother’s hand slip and go sliding into the river," said Ghanshyam. “The mother looked back and then fell herself."

Ghanshyam helped his wife up a few feet on the mountainside, the path below them fast dissolving. Both of them held on to little cracks in the rock, and wedged their feet where they could. A few feet above, trees offered more protection but neither had the energy to reach them.

“Everywhere, people screamed ‘help me, save me,’" said Ghanshyam. “But no one could have helped anyone here. If anyone reached out to grab someone else, they would both fall to their death. People were falling off like pebbles."

Encouraged by the sight of those who managed to reach the trees, Ghanshyam and his wife hauled themselves up to the base of one. “We have no idea how. God helped."

They straddled a tree each—face down towards the slope, arms and legs entwined around the trunk, as the rain fell without a break, and rivulets of water ran down the slopes. “We were next to each other," said Ghanshyam. “We were not going to move from there."

All night they saw people trying to make their way up or trying to find trails. All night they saw more people, the young and the old, slip to certain death, as the earth shook.

“After a while, I just kept my eyes on my wife and stopped seeing anything else," said Ghanshyam. “We did not expect to see the morning."

Dam burst

On the morning of 17 June, at first light, Mehra walked out of the temple and met a scene he could barely comprehend. Boulders, rocks, sand and gravel had piled up high around the complex. Buildings had collapsed or were about to. People were everywhere, dazed, aimlessly walking.

“Then I heard a piercing sound, like a storm hurtling towards us," said Mehra. He ran back to the temple.

“I screamed—run, run, run, get inside—and just as I entered the mandir, a huge wave threw me inside," he says. “I was lifted so high that I was near the ceiling, and I grabbed the electric cables and held on."

He looked down to see heads bobbing up and down in the water, mouths twisted in screams, hands desperately reaching out for suspended bells, wires, anything. The water burst through a side door and carried away some pilgrims. Sand poured in, collecting 4-5ft deep.

“Everything was over in seconds," said Mehra.

He jumped down into the sand and ran out. Outside, lodges and shops had been carried away, like they were toys. The buildings that stood were packed with sand and gravel to the ceiling.

“I knew immediately that no one could have survived," said Mehra.

A few hundred metres above Kedarnath, a massive lake fed by the Chorabari glacier, the source of the Mandakini, had burst.

“Everywhere we looked there were dead bodies," said Mehra. “Lifeless hands and legs stuck out of the sand-packed windows and doors. One had red bangles on it, the kind you wear when you are newly married."

The survivors began to gather. The Mandakini raged all around them, creating three channels that coursed through the temple town. They were on an island. The survivors collected wreckage, hauled tree trunks washed down by the river to try and make bridges. None held. Night came, and around a thousand people made their way inside the only lodge that wasn’t full of sand.

Around midnight, the rain stopped for the first time.

“I walked out, and the sky was blazing with light," said Mehra, “Like it would eat us up."

Incessant rain

The Sharmas survived to see the morning of 17 June, but by then time had no meaning. Night turned into day turned into night. The rain went on. They held on to their trees, shivering uncontrollably.

“I remember nothing from that day," said Ghanshyam. “I don’t remember when it stopped raining."

On the morning of 18 June, Ghanshyam saw people starting to move again. A young man helped him up. Together, they helped Ghanshyam’s wife. The trio made their way through the mountain, mostly on all fours. A couple of hours and two kilometres later, they came upon a small clearing. Jungle Chatti used to be a traveller’s stop before it was washed away. A ruined horse-shed was all that was left. A few thousand people huddled in a space that could barely hold them. The mountainside was littered with corpses.

The man who helped the Sharmas, whose name they did not get to know, prodded bodies for signs of life. He gently rolled one corpse down the slope, making space for the Sharmas to sit. Then he went away.

“We sat there and cried, we sat and cried," said Ghanshyam. “Then we had no strength to cry."

The people at Jungle Chatti then saw the first sign of hope—a helicopter clattering through the sky.

Word spreads

By this time, word had spread throughout Uttarakhand that things were very wrong. At the district headquarters of Rudraprayag, where the Alaknanda and Mandakini meet, the young superintendent of police, Barinder Jit Singh, had got SOS calls from Rambara and Gaurikund (where the motorable road ends and the walking route for Kedarnath begins) on the night of 16 June. Then, he lost all communication with his men. The river had wrecked havoc through the bigger towns along its course, rising 50-60ft and carrying away buildings that stood close to it.

“The river had gone awry," said Singh, 31. “It was a complete wash-out of the whole Mandakini and Alaknanda valleys."

On 17 June, the rain prevented helicopters from flying.

“Of course, we knew we were in great trouble, since we could see the river destroying things here," said Singh. “And I had lost all contact with all my chowkis (pickets) along the valleys. The roads were washed out. Hundreds of villagers are still cut off, but safe. We were just stuck here." (The latest figures from the Uttarakhand government says that 2,375 villages were affected by floods and landslides, of which 739 are still cut off, but receiving relief supplies.)

Only on 18 June did the first Indian Air Force helicopters take off. Some food and water was dropped but most did not reach those stranded on thin strips of land and mountain slopes.

The roads were washed away in hundreds of places, including the link between Gaurikund and the next town, Sonprayag. Helicopters could land in just three places—Gaurikund, a small clearing called Garud Chatti, above a hill in Kedarnath valley, and a large, flat field called Bhairon Chatti, a kilometre north of the temple.

Mehra says six or seven thousand people had collected at Garud Chatti when the first chopper dropped food. “There was a mad scramble," he said. “People were ready to kill for a biscuit."

Mehra walked back to Kedarnath, searching for more survivors whom he could take to the larger field at Bhairon Chatti.

At Kedarnath, Mehra and a few hundred other people made another makeshift bridge with the wreckage and sent a local across with a thick telephone cable which was then tied to a rock at the other end. People began to cross the torrent, and make their way to Bhairon Chatti. A large Mi-17 chopper had landed with food—puri, aloo, gur and chana.

That helicopter carried away the first lot of survivors from Kedarnath.

Devastated land

On 20 June, as the weather cleared and the scale of the tragedy was clear, the armed forces went on war footing.

Overnight, a small airstrip in a village called Gauchar, 32km north of Rudraprayag, became an advanced airbase. Medical tents, refuelling zones, choppers and trucks vied for space. Locals set up a large kitchen tent and brought in personal supplies to cook food for survivors. A field in Rudraprayag was turned into a helipad, and Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun, the rescue headquarters. Another advanced airbase was cleared in Guptkashi, 32km south of Gaurikund. Another in Joshimath, a town at 6,200ft with an Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) base, 44km south of Badrinath.

Devastation was everywhere. The road connecting Badrinath to the rest of Uttarakhand was gone, with nearly 15,000 people stuck. The path to the Sikh pilgrimage site of Hemkund Sahib, at 14,200ft, was washed away, as was the only bridge above the Alaknanda that connected it to the motorable road at Govindghat, 22km north of Joshimath. Roughly 8,000 people were stranded there.

The 14km stretch from Gaurikund to Kedarnath was the worst hit. No one knew how many were stranded, but the estimates ran to thousands.

All day, the helicopters flew.

Chopper sorties

From Joshimath, an army aviation unit and Deccan, a civilian chopper service offering pilgrim flights, flew to Badrinath and Govindghat, where landing areas were untouched.

On a sortie to Badrinath, two army pilots pointed to the devastation—roads cleaved off, leaving only yawning gaps.

“You can see Badrinath now, and there’s the temple, the one with the yellow roof," said Lt. Col. Vikram Khatri over the intercom. “It’s our request that you press your palms together and ask for blessings. It’s what we do every time we come in to land."

“Col. Saini, I have the controls, you go first," Khatri told his co-pilot.

The landing, like the 20 minute flight through narrow valleys and turbulence, was tricky.

The temple town of Badrinath was spared. There was no electricity or phone services, but people sheltered in hotels and lodges. The temple committee, people said, locked the temples and ran away, though hotels set up free kitchens.

Thousands thronged the helipad, separated from the landing zone by a wire fence. People screamed and berated the rescuers—every one wanted to be evacuated first. The army struggled to establish control. Eventually they did, impassively, calmly.

A young woman howled in the face of the nearest soldier. “I will die here, I will die here," she kept repeating. The soldier tried to calm her down, for 10 minutes, 15, then decided the gentle approach was not working. “You will not die," he screamed back. “You will not die. It is not so easy to die. Even if you stayed here another 15 days, you will be alive." The woman sat down heavily and continued crying.

The old and the ailing in Badrinath were abandoned. They sat in a line a few metres away from the main throng pushing to reach the choppers, watching the chaos with a blank gaze. An army medical officer walked among them, checking their vitals.

“Why are the old even here?" asked a plump man of about 30, red in the face with screaming, the top buttons of his shirt torn. “Who asked them to come to a place like this? If they have no regard for their own safety, why should we care?"

Rescuers tried to follow a strict order of evacuation—the ailing first, then the elderly, children and their mothers, then the rest.

In areas of extreme devastation, they followed this order. In Badrinath, rescuers had to deal with those fit enough to relentlessly muscle their way through.

Back at Joshimath airbase, the makeshift medical tent was crowded with the rescued.

“We are working non-stop from six in the morning till around eight at night," said Captain Shweta Bhardwaj, 27, a doctor. “We have had heart attacks, cerebral haemorrhages, multiple fractures. And of course, just about everyone who comes in is in trauma and deep shock."

A man was brought in on a stretcher, his eyes bulging and open, his pupils rolling into eyelids.

His wife informed Bhardwaj he had hypertension, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease and had not had his medicines for two days.

“Open your mouth baba," Bhardwaj said gently, “Take these pills. You will be all right, you are safe now."

The medical tent was wracked by the wind kicked up by the choppers. They landed and lifted off endlessly, unloading people, loading supplies.

Old, emaciated men and women were cradled out by soldiers. Howling children scuttled under the rotors towards safety. A woman cried, watching her husband being carried away on a stretcher, a saline drip swinging above his head.

Like a war

On 22 June, four days after air rescue operations began, Lt. Col. Suneet Sohal, a tall man with an easy smile, took his first break of the day after six hours of flying.

Sitting on the ground next to the helipad in Joshimath, he ate two pieces of bread and a thin omelette. Another pilot gave him a small tub of cheese spread. Sohal’s face lit up. “Ahh," he said, “Exotic food today!"

“It’s like a war," said Brigadier Akshat Arora, 48, in charge of operations from Joshimath. But in 27 years in the army, the brigadier with a bullet scar under one eye had never seen anything like this.

The Sharmas, like the hundreds stuck with them at Jungle Chatti, were still without food, water, or medicines. Six days and counting.

The Gaurikund-Kedarnath stretch remained the main focus of rescue operations—paratroopers, ITBP mountaineers, civilian mountaineers, National Disaster Response Force commandos were winched down, risking their own lives to create walking routes and helicopter landing areas and guiding people to safe zones.

Only a couple of thousand people, who had made it to Gauri village near Gaurikund, had any relief. The small village, set high on a hill and unaffected by the floods, opened its houses and kitchens to everyone, survivors said. Despite the fact that the village too was cut off from supplies.

Tales of heroism from local villagers echoed everywhere. Of Govind Singh Chauhan, who along with four men, slithered through a slippery jungle route from Ghangria, at 10,000ft on the Hemkund pilgrim route, down 10km to Pulna, his village near Govindghat, paving the way for thousands of pilgrims to come down from Hemkund. Pulna, Chauhan’s village, had been completely washed away, though the villagers had evacuated it safely for higher ground when the water had started rising.

No fires were lit

The next day, 23 June, rescue operations were intensified.

More helicopters, more troops, more supplies flooded the rescue base at Gauchar.

People searched, endlessly, for their families. Where will they land? Who do we ask? How do we know if they have been evacuated?

The soldiers gave them their own phones to call home.

The weather played games. The choppers may be state-of-the-art, but the system they followed to read the weather was rudimentary. Police constables with wireless sets, stationed at strategic positions in the valley, called in every 15 minutes, ticking off a list of criteria given to them by the pilots. Fog? Cloud? Rain? Visibility till the next post?

The pilots, during lunch, talked of the weather, and about certain sadhus up in the Kedarnath area who refused to come down. One sadhu had though, in a mass of dreadlocked hair and beard. He got off the chopper and straightaway started walking, ramrod straight, down the road.

Where are you going?

“I will walk to Rishikesh."

Are you not hurt?

“I stood in the middle, in front of the temple, and the river ran everywhere around me. An ocean came and swallowed the earth. Why do you not ask about the horses, the mules, the dogs, the goats? Who will rescue them?"

And he walked off.

At around 2pm, an emaciated Ghanshyam was brought down from a chopper. His eyes were glazed with exhaustion, his bare feet cracked like driftwood, his toes broken, swollen, black and yellow.

An army doctor asked, “Are you alright baba? Any chest pain? Where does it hurt?"

“I am all right," Ghanshyam said in a barely audible voice, and lifted his trembling hands in a pranam. “Just get me my wife back, she is still waiting at Jungle Chatti baba. She can’t hear well"

“Don’t worry, she will be here soon, I promise you," the doctor said.

Later that evening, Ghanshyam’s wife, army officials said, was evacuated safely to Dehradun.

Mehra had been evacuated three days earlier, and had already spoken to his wife in Chopta.

“She cried and cried," he said. “She said for the entire time I was stuck, no food was cooked in the house, no fires were lit."

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