The Killer Avalanches in Kashmir: Nature’s Fury and Man’s Grit
This story comes in late in the day as the South Asian Idea Team explored the facts of the case to unearth the spirit of the soldiers and the civilians of Kashmir that the avalanches that struck on 22 Feb could not bury. This is an account of the man’s struggle against the forces of the nature.
The killer avalanches that struck Dawar and Sonamarg in Kashmir left a trail of death and destruction behind them. This fury of nature claimed 19 lives of the soldiers of the 109 Infantry Brigade on 22 February. 16 army personnel were killed in Dawar in Bandipora district. Another three were killed in the avalanche in Sonamarg area of Ganderbal district as per army officials. Both the areas are in north Kashmir.
The magnitude of the avalanches at Dawar and Sonamarg could be realised only by 29 February when the sun shone a bit brighter. It now became clear that there were actually two avalanches at each area which combined together and brought a mass of snow. At Sonamarg one could not see the Zojila Road. The avalanche here jumped through the Sind River and climbed on to the plateau where the Transit Camp stands. It flattened all structures which were aligned East – West as these met the fury broadside; those aligned North – South withstood the weight much better. The troops at the Transit Camp were only those who stay there during winter to provide security and carry out essential maintenance to the assets. They along with their officer got buried as the snow level rose to over seven feet in a matter of seconds. The officer could be pulled out by the troops of the Corps of Signals whose accommodation was slightly higher but was nevertheless also affected. With the help of the officer and the remaining troops plus the inevitable Kashmiri porters a larger number of troops were extricated. The deceased and injured were primarily due to the metal girders of pre fabricated structures falling on them.
The Dawar avalanche was comparatively lesser in intensity but much more destructive. It too traveled almost 400-500 meters after hitting the flat space. The Workshop was hit with full intensity and almost completely destroyed. Had it struck by day the casualties would have been avoided. However, it came down at 2200 hr at night when men were in their bunks and the JCOs were enjoying a late dinner(work in field areas goes on into the night). It is surprising that metal structures, vehicles and even generator sets could be reduced to a mass of twisted metal all because of snow. A trailer was lifted and crashed on to a pre-fab shelter killing the men inside. It was like a tsunami had hit the place. The challenges of putting things back in place before the next Amarnath Yatra, which is barely four months away, are indeed great.
At least 25 army vehicles and 17 barracks were damaged in the avalanche, according to a state government disaster-management official. The damage to infrastructure was colossal.
This particular area is not normally avalanche prone and is cut off from the rest of the Valley in winter months. Rescue operations were hindered by heavy snow and bad weather conditions. A specialised team from High Altitude Warfare School along with two avalanche rescue dogs facilitated the rescue effort.
The last time a snow tsunami of this nature hit Kashmir was on 22 February 2005. The heavy snow precipitated avalanches and mud slides which killed over 300 civilians.
The rescue efforts during the recent avalanches brought out stories of valour from the men involved in the rescue efforts.
The story of Major Khati, a paratrooper from 81 Mountain Brigade, who jumped from his helicopter in Sonamarg area and rescued 9 civilians on 24 February merits special mention. After ensuring that no one was hurt, Major Khati gathered the survivors and created a landing area for the helicopter. The survivors were then airlifted in three sorties from the makeshift helipad.
Captain T Philip, the medical officer saved precious lives working tirelessly for 72 hours non stop. Lance Naik Raju Kumar, Hav Harman Singh, Naik VK Prabhakar, Lance Naik SC Kanhar and Hav SS Chauhan were few who stood out by the dint of their dedication to save lives. The list of names and human stories emanating out of the avalanche and its fallout shall continue to pour in and it would be difficult to chronicle all here.
However, the spirit of the men on the job of reconstruction remains alive as they put the tragedy behind them and prepare for the daunting task ahead.
As per General Ata Hasnain,
“It will require phenomenal leadership, staff work, managerial skills, technical expertise and most of all dynamism to get all this done but we are sworn to complete this in time and do it in a quality way.”