Hand-in-Hand

Joint army-air force rescue and relief efforts after the Leh cloud-burst

Divya Srivastava

Joint army-air force rescue and relief efforts after the Leh cloud-burst

Leh: The devastation caused by recent flashflood in the Leh region saw the Indian armed forces working in tandem to provide succour to the victims and to restore normalcy in the minimum possible time.

The flashflood triggered by a series of cloudburst swept away buildings and the army installations on August 5 midnight in the Leh town and the adjoining areas leading to a large number of deaths and destruction. It also led to breakage of roads and bridges, complete disruption of the communication system and the worse of all washing off the civil hospital. The victims also included the foreign tourists in a large number, this time of the year being the tourism season.

Since the magnitude of the destruction was so large, the rescue forces came into action to provide relief, right from the evacuation to the best of medical aid immediately. Rapid action was taken to get the roads and the air base cleared for the transportation, finding the missing people, getting the communication operative, as the BSNL complex was completely annihilated by then. The rescue teams pulled out bodies trapped in debris in the devastated areas and the ones alive were taken to the general hospital (GH).

The air force managed to clear the runway of the air base with the assistance of the army within one day so that the relief equipments, medical supplies and the rescuers could be airlifted. Since all the victims were taken to the GH as the civil hospital was also destroyed, the hospital was soon short of beds but still managed to provide medical aid to victims on time. “We can cater to only strength of 200 patients and the family ward has just 10 beds, therefore, accommodating the sufferers had become next to impossible. Initially, the first day the people were lying on the floor where we started providing the first aid as at that time giving first aid was the priority and not the place where it was to be given,” the Brig. med of the corps Brig. Dutta told FORCE.

When asked about the number of specialists and staff being limited and subsequently the methodology adopted for tackling a calamity of this magnitude, he told us that, there were nursing assistants sent from the other units of the area. “By 6th evening things were a little under control and then started a problem when the patients after gaining consciousness started looking for their people and this resulted into a major panic.” In order to calm down the patients in the hospital, a scrolling display on the entrance of the hospital featuring the pictures and names of the people within the hospital was put up so that they could be identified by their family members who are searching for them. “This move turned out to be successful to quiet an extent. Other than the medical aid, personal attention and basic needs, the hospital provided the victims with fresh juices, nutritious food and clothes.” The administration block of 153 GH was also affected and there was a breakdown of power. Since the number of patients was large and the treatment had to be given at the earliest, GH was provided with six high output generators. Since the onslaught of the cloudburst had a severe effect on the communication system, the BSNL landline and mobile connectivity was completely disrupted.

To overcome this, the communicators from the corps of signals worked overnight to restore the communication. The INMARSAT was installed at the district collector’s office which provided the first satellite connectivity from Leh to the outside world. Later, the connectivity was boosted by landline through army exchange. “Withstanding the fury of the nature, our officers have worked overnight to restore the communication for the commanders to be in contact with the formations and troops,” said the Chief Signals Officer Brig. T.G.S. Kumar. Even when the whole connectivity, to the outside world was down, it was the signalers in the army who managed to provide internet connectivity to the media, through which news and videos were uploaded and subsequently aired in real time. The various branches of the army did not restrict themselves to their area of expertise and extended help in whatever way possible, so did the signals where they provided not only shelter to the affected but also provided packed food, blankets, clothes, medical aid, and in case of emergency escorted the victims to the 153 GH.

Another difficult task for the army was to get the roads opened at the earliest for transportation as well as laying of cables. Keeping this in mind the engineers of army immediately started the task without any delay. It was found that ten bridges had got completely washed off in the floods and the roads were not even left with minimum space. “For any rescue work to be operational, our priority was to get the roads cleared first and to do so we managed to get dousers and started clearing the roads,’’ one of the engineers told us. Within a span of three days the bridges were being restored, special attention was given to bridges connecting Nimmu and Phayang as they were critical to connect Leh to other parts.

Joint army-air force rescue and relief efforts after the Leh cloud-burstBoth army and air force have worked in close coordination with each other in order to speed up the rescue operations. There were ten Indian Air force flights which were responsible for bringing in equipments to restore roads, bridges, buildings and communication. There were six sorties launched to airlift 125 personals from the National Disaster Relief Force along with thirty ton relief material including medicines, generators, portable X-Ray machines and emergency rescue kits. These flights included two IL 76 and four An 32s. “We managed to clear the runway by 04 am on August 6 with army’s assistance. As required by the 153 GH, we also provided the hospital with our medical assistance,” said AVM AOC Chauhan. “Since the hospital was jam-packed, on the request of medical authorities, we airlifted thirty four army officials with thirty civilians to the Udhampur Hospital along with the nursing assistants.” The air force was also responsible for reconnaissance sorties further resulting into airlifting sixty four foreign nationals along with eighty one local guides at the Rumtse and Chuglamsar axis, who had gone on trekking. The 666 R&O, the army aviation unit deployed in Leh was the first observer of the flood taking place in Nimmu on August 4. “When we came to know about the flashfloods, we along with the 203 Army aviation Unit (another aviation unit in Leh) went for a recce and informed the senior authorities on the intensity of the disaster,” said one of the senior officers of the unit. The next step taken by these aviators was the evacuation of the sufferers which included civilians, foreign nationals and the army personnel as well. They observed that the areas of Tiakshi and the Batalik sector there have got washed off, hence it became important to immediately evacuate the soldiers deployed there. The 203 Army Aviation (UH) used the Advanced Light Helicopters to bring the relief material as these have more space whereas the 666 R&O used Cheetahs which were involved in evacuation of the affected areas.

‘All the Rescue And Relief Works Have Been Done in Cooperation With the Civil Authorities’
General Officer Commanding, 14 Corps, Lt Gen. S.K. Singh

What was the first step you took after realising the seriousness of the situation?

Though such a calamity was unexpected, heavy rainfall on the night before the cloud burst in Nimmu helped us to prepare ourselves for the worse and our officers were already out on a vigil. Also, when we saw that the number of casualties in the military hospital is increasing, without any delay or any formal requisition from the authorities we got into action to save as many people as possible.

How are you supporting the families of the affected service personnel?

We are trying to help the families of the soldiers who have lost their lives with various measures such as raising funds from family welfare organisations (FWO), providing additional help in terms of assistance in rebuilding and repairing homes and helping educate the children including hostel facilities.

What kind of support did you get from the civil authorities?

All the rescue and relief works have been done in cooperation with the civil authorities. The army was running several relief camps in affected areas not only in Leh but also in remote areas and there was complete support from the civil administration in whatever way possible.

How did you manage relief and support for the far off places like Partapur?

As it is known that army is deployed in far off places along with the border and Line of Control as well in the peace areas, therefore reaching out to the remote areas for rescue was not very difficult. We managed the rescue and relief operations in areas like Partapur with the same ease as in Leh.