The pilot who first flew to Kedarnath, witnessed the fury of nature, and alerted the Uttarakhand Government
Capt Bhupendra Singh
It had been raining cats and dogs since June 13, 2013. Portions of our helipad at Phata in Rudrapryag had started collapsing. It was ominous of the impeding tragedy that was to follow. We were all worried that something somewhere was really amiss.
Shri Rakesh Sharma, Principal Secretary, Civil Aviation, Government of Uttrakhand, called me around 1000hr on June 17, 2013 and asked if I could fly to Kedarnath and report the situation, as contact from the top had been lost since morning and it was feared that something had gone wrong there. I told him that weather has been continuously bad since the last few days, as it was raining. He said it was an urgent matter and whenever possible I should fly and carry out a recognisance flight and report back to him.
It was only around 1800 hr in the evening that the weather looked somewhat fit for flying. I took my co-pilot Captain Vinod Angad and our Operations Manager Shri Yoginder Rana for the flight in our 6 seater single engine Bell 407 helicopter. We somehow reached Gaurikund, the last road head, beyond which no vehicles can proceed and realised that the parking area, which used to house a hundred vehicles was missing.
We slowly reached Rambada and started to look for it. It was then that with great horror we suddenly realised that we could not locate it. It was with shock that we grasped that Rambada a big place with its large green roofed GMVN Rest House had completely vanished from the face of the earth! The grassy green bowl had been replaced by a huge raging Mandakani river in full spate, a hundred times bigger than the original small rivulet. Huge big boulders had been dug up from beneath the surface. The whole scene scared us. All of Rambada with its hotels and dhabhas had been devoured by the river!
The weather ahead was not too good and the whole experience had unnerved and scared us. We had the required information and didn’t want to push our luck any more.
We turned the helicopter around and then saw another scene that filled our hearts with horror and despair. We saw that there were hundreds of people with women and small children interspersed who were waving at us to get them out of that hell hole where they had got stuck by this most unlikely stroke of bad luck. They were in small and also large groups. We took the helicopter very close to them—within a few feet of them and our hearts were screaming to just go in and pick them up but alas! there was no landing place available. My experience of 22 years of flying in some of the most difficult terrains on earth told me in one glance that I just couldn’t help these stranded people in any way. They were in a hopeless situation. They were on a small track with electric power poles and wires surrounding them. The track itself had been carved out of a nearly vertical hillside. It also had Himalayan trees of great height growing all over it. In short we could get very close to them but couldn’t pick them up. As much as it was despairing for the people on the ground, it was equally heartbreaking for us.
With a heavy heart we turned back towards from where we had come. We saw on the return journey the same sad story of the track having vanished from the face of the earth at different locations thereby leaving hundreds of people stranded in small groups.
With a sinking feeling we switched off the helicopter at Phata and I rushed to inform Shri Rakesh Sharma of what I had seen and discovered. It took some time and effort to speak to him as by then mobile connectivity had deteriorated drastically. It was as if the world was collapsing around us. Initially, he did not believe what I was trying to say but then I really had to re-emphasise that Rambada had been obliterated from the face of earth and its place had been taken by the raging and angry Mandakani river.
The next day was luckily a good weather day and right from early morning helicopters started to fly and rescue people from Kedarnath by bringing them to lower helipads at Phata and Guptkashi.
The benefit of the last evening flight was that the Government got an additional twelve hours to prepare and mount the biggest helicopter rescue and relief operations in the history of the world.