Haridwar: For Inspector Gopal Singh Meena, the scenes of death and destruction in Uttarakhand will always be etched in his memory. The man, who has worked in some tough environments whenever natural calamity has struck the country, said he has never seen such utter devastation.
When the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team was air-dropped at Guptkashi, which is located between Kedarnath and Rudraprayag, on June 18 the sight they saw sent a shiver down their spines. Structures were smashed to the ground like match boxes (by the fury of the flood waters), and twisted bodies of the old and young, men and women were strewn around, Meena said.
"There was not even a single structure that was standing. There were many bodies. It was a ghost town. The stench of the bodies was so bad that our men found it difficult to go ahead. It was with great difficulty that we walked ahead," he said.
Meena and dozens of his teammates are now on their way to Delhi after carrying out a fortnight long rescue and evacuation operations in various parts of Uttarakhand, where incessant rains over three days from June 14 triggered flash floods and landslides, leading to hundreds of deaths, while hundreds more are missing.
Over 100,000 people have been evacuated so far from the affected areas.
Meena said many people took shelter in the jungles when the flood water inundated the areas.
"There were wailing women and children in hysterical condition. They were there without food and water. They were totally in panic. They were crying for help. We faced a lot of problems as we had no way to reach them. We then made ropeways and then many of our men carried them on their backs. Our first priority was to reach the women, children and the old," Meena added.
He said their next stop was Gaurikund, the trekking base of Kedarnath shrine and Rambada, a prominent village, which used to serve as a resting place for the devotees going to the Kedarnath temple
"The scene in Gaurikund was even more horrific. We saved a sadhu who was stuck in one corner of the gushing water. Here again people had taken shelter in jungles. Many just couldn`t walk. Their feet were swollen. They were totally famished and in urgent need of food and water," added Meena, whose team members were the ones who rescued and evacuated hundreds of people stuck in the entire stretch of Kedarnath valley.
"I have been to many places, including Japan (tsunami of 2011). But I have not seen such a scene. It was horrifying. We felt helpless before the force of nature. I cannot easily forget what I saw there. It will take time," he said.
His colleague, Inspector Amrinder Kumar, said what made their work very difficult was that the bridges and the roads were swept away by the flood water.
"There was not even a small twisting lane that we could use to rescue the trapped people. We had to use ropeways to bring them back to safety," Kumar said.
Assistant Commandant Rajesh Yadav said their teammates were very depressed when they heard that nine of their men on the Indian Air Force rescue plane had died in the crash on June 25.
"We were shocked. They were going to report the recovery of Rs.89 lakh from a sadhu. While the money was sent in an earlier plane, they were going to report the entire incident to the local police," Yadav said. The crash claimed the lives of nine personnel of NDRF, six of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and five of the Indian Air Force.
Yadav said they had to build helipads for the IAF planes to land and take off with the rescued people.
"In one area, we built the helipad by cutting the jutting wires and poles and by removing the big boulders and stones. We levelled the area. But it was a small area. So when the private plane took off, its rotors hit some object and crashed. We were able to rescue the six passengers and the pilots. We had to then start again and built another helipad in a bigger place. This time we were successful, and the plane finally took off with the rescued people," Yadav added.
He said many people had fallen ill because of starvation and staying out in the open in the freezing cold for long hours.
"Doctors were also air-dropped. In one day, 700 people were given medicines for various ailments."
But what he cannot forget was the stench of the decomposing bodies.
"In Rambada, the stench was killing. It could be smelled from far off. Our men found it very difficult. It was a ghastly sight. It will take a long time for us all to recover from what we have seen on the mountains," Yadav added.
The NDRF is a disaster response agency under the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).