Lest We Forget: 26-1-2001
As we go into celebrating our Republic Day in 2018, putting on display for the world to see, our culture alongside our military might we must remember 26 January 2001. The figure 26 has an indelible mark in the history of India it was 26th January that we transformed into a Republic and it was this very Date 65 years later that saw devastation in Kutch and Gujarat.
On 26th Jan 2001, it was a normal morning for the early risers who took the calm of sunrise as a good opportunity for a morning walk. Others a little more lazy looked at this as a day they could lie in bed for just a little longer. It was as usual a holiday for the vast majority. All offices were closed, officials and those in uniform were readying for Parades, Flag Hoisting and Celebrations.
Tremors and the Day
The earthquake that struck not only shook the people and gave us a wakeup call but caught all the responders off balance.
The loud noise and din created by alarms of Peacocks and Parrots as well a barking of dogs were ignored by all, some merely wondered why all this noise?
The morning walkers felt imbalanced by sudden up heaving of the ground beneath their feet, roads opened up or caved in, houses collapsed, communications were disrupted, cell towers collapsed and for the better part of at least an hour mayhem and confusion prevailed.
Officials were missing and Offices closed, families were hit and did not know where many members had gone.
All communications were in a single stroke broken, cables cut, towers toppled , leaving the public at large disconnected from those who they expected would reach out to them for relief.
The Army , the ever reliable last bastion, was out on exercise and the administration did not know whom to turn to for help, their Disaster Response Teams virtually nonexistent.
On feeling the tremors I ran out from my Underground Shelter to the Ops Room, I was hit on the head by a falling beam, next thing I knew was that I was flat on my back, instinctively clutching my head, I felt something warm flowing through my fingers, a deep rut could be felt across my scalp, then I could feel blood being sprayed on the walls of the underground passage in the ops room. I had been injured I thought, and shouted for help, soon I was moved to the field hospital and administered 23 stitches! Well, I thought, at least my scalp head been stitched back in shape!!
We were still not sure as to what had happened! There was no communication with any one, lines were down, Cell Towers had fallen but the good thing was that TV channels were still functioning! BBC was covering an earthquake showing great devastation in Gujarat! Coordination of effort was undertaken from the ADS for the first two days and then back from the Ops room.
Quick Responses & The Army back to the Rescue
The Signals were working hard to get communications with Ahmadabad re established, our V Sat set deployed and communications re established with the formation at Bhuj and at Bhuj as well as Station Head quarters at Ahmadabad.
The first lot of Engineers and Medical Teams were sent across the Bhuj in a nebulous start of what we were soon to realise would turn into an event of international dimensions.
Three days past, engineers and medical teams in partly in place, it was business as usual for the Army! The Formation was preparing for a test exercise, commanders were out on recce, staff officers manned the HQ. I was surprised to get a call from Army Head Quarters and the person on the other side addressed me by name saying” Hello Pradeep this is a friend of yours, is everything okay?” I guessed from the voice that it was Gen Gokaran the SO in C Signals, next he said to me” Here, someone else wants to talk to you and next I heard the familiar voice of our then Chief whom we affectionately referred to a “Paddy”! “ What`s happening Pradeep? Is all well? What action have you taken? And so I promptly gave him an update, wishing us the best, he hung up saying that I should keep the Military Operations Branch informed.
We had by now got the Station headquarters to respond to the Civil Administration and our teams from various areas were well on their way.
The gravity of the situation began to dawn with bits of information trickling in. There had been vast damage and destruction in Bhuj as well as Ahmadabad. We began to collate data from across the state and prepare for a long haul into rescue & relief operations.
The test exercise called off, columns on their way to Jamnagar, Bhuj, Ahmadabad, a skeleton Headquarters established at Station Headquarters. EME and AD teams deployed along with Guards.
Bhuj & Ahmadabad
Back at our permanent location, the situation was by now clear.
Being close to the epicentre Bhuj had borne the brunt of this earthquake. The Civil hospital had been totally destroyed, Military buildings collapsed too. A young subaltern had escaped through his bathroom window dressed only in his underwear!!
But despite having suffered themselves, the Army were out in small teams for search & rescue missions. The Military Hospital which had been damaged established an ad hoc Operation Theatre in tents and got to work.
Ahmadabad suffered much loss too, mainly due to the ways of corrupt who managed to get licenses to build buildings in gross violation of building laws. Making a swimming pool under the garb of “water storage tanks” on the 14th floor which collapsed do to the oscillation of water; or not getting “Soil Stability Tests” done before constructing and a fourteen story building had four levels sink straight into the ground!
Everywhere, there were persons sitting outside houses in a daze and shock, lanes and streets were blocked and the few who had survived the destruction and who had the safety of roofs over their heads took to sleep out on the streets in fear of further shocks. No one dared to sleep inside the house, ad hoc beds were strewn along roads and pedestrian foot paths.
Massive aftershocks added to this fear!
Aid began to pour in from various quarters, NGOs, International Organisations, Other countries, Other States. The largest Army Contingent was also in place.
Search and rescue operations continued, injured flocked hospitals, relief camps were set up and soon the magnitude of damage dawned upon us in all its fury.
Gujarat promised to rebuild itself! The slogan “Vibrant Gujarat” took birth . The common sense and practical approach to life was reflected strongly by the Government and the people. I recall one such incidence very strongly. A man approached us for help in recovering his belongings, suggesting that his wife and few months old daughter would have died but he had to get on with his life. 109 hours had elapsed since the building; his home had collapsed and he had given up on them. Our Column searched and with the help of rescue dogs from Switzerland, we found to our utter joy that his wife and child were alive! She had been beating on a water pipe near her and feeding her small daughter on her own blood by puncturing her fingers !
Some lessons we could all do well to remember are listed below; by no means complete, they may however from the base to build upon:-
Town & City Planning must be sincere and avoid making residents pay for lives and properties because of faulty layout, congested lanes and roads and corrupt practices which allow illegal construction.
Emergency Response teams need to be on readiness, more so on occasions of National Holidays. Natural Disasters have an uncanny way about striking at these particular occasions.
Hospitals need to cater for a rush of mass causalities much beyond their capacity, thus the need for flexibility, early warning to prepare themselves, call up other medical staff, press into service private hospitals.
Need to deploy Mobile Hospitals into the affected areas for immediate medical support.
Emergency Centres need to be available near various colonies.
- Alternate means of Communications must be established and even Radio/TV Channels must be used .The first to go down are all means of communications & therefore we need to have a fail proof auto rerouting system to ensure communications with all stake holders.
- Relief camps must be established with full medical support, support of NGOs and other Organisations for supply of water, food, ambulances for evacuation to hospitals. Where possible, such areas must be identified as contingency planning to save response time.
- Sanitation needs attention to prevent epidemics.
- People, the 1st responders need to be trained in what to do to save lives, 1st aid, where to take shelter and so forth.
- Communities need to be resilient and determined to help themselves , rebuild and re -habilitate.
- Civil Defence must be revitalised.
- Use of knowledge and technology to forecast and evacuate on one hand and to resort to construction of buildings which are resistant to such events.
- Build long term Critical Infrastructure away from areas threatened by Tsunamis, Cyclones and Earthquakes.
The moot question which invariably comes to mind is ”Have we Learnt our Lessons?”
Are our Towns & Cities better prepared? Would we be able to avoid loss of lives and property if Shimla, Solan, Missouri, Delhi, Mumbai, Ludhiana were to be hit by such a calamity?
Will we allow another Uttarkhand to happen? Could we have reduced the casualties or more so could we have done even better by setting up the right infrastructure along the pilgrim route to avoid such a disaster? Could we have had a better warning system in Himachal to prevent the drowning of students near Mandi?
Last but not the least. Let us not forget those who lost their lives and property in the Earthquake at Gujarat on this fateful day, nor forget those who gave their unstinting support in the efforts at search and rescue and those who displayed the indomitable spirit to rebuild and progress to live life in a stronger manner in memory of those and that they had lost!