Indian football star Baichung Bhutia in quake drama

Gangtok: India`s most famous footballer Baichung Bhutia told on Tuesday of his desperate eight-hour journey on foot and by bus to reach his pregnant wife after the earthquake in his home state of Sikkim.

Bhutia, 34, said he was at home enjoying a cup of tea in the sleepy village of Tinkitam in southern Sikkim, when the powerful quake struck on Sunday evening, rocking large parts of India, Tibet and Nepal.

"I was really worried because my pregnant wife and 17-month-old twins were in (state capital) Gangtok, which was badly affected," Bhutia said after a press conference on rescue and relief efforts in the northeastern state.

The soccer star, who retired from the international scene last month, walked for two hours from his village before he managed to catch a bus to Gangtok, about 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the quake`s epicentre.

"It took me eight hours to reach my family, they are all fine. Fortunately everyone in my village is safe and there is no major damage there but I worry for my people in north Sikkim," he said.

At least 83 people died in the 6.9-magnitude quake, 50 of them in Sikkim, with the toll likely to rise as rescuers reach remote communities cut off since the disaster.

Bhutia, who is celebrated for his good looks as well as his on-field skills, was the first Indian to play in Europe when he was signed by English club Bury on a three-year contract in 1999.

After a series of injuries, he now co-owns and plays for United Sikkim FC in Indian domestic football.

Bhutia`s engaging personality helped boost football in cricket-focused India, earning him lucrative contracts from Adidas and Nike, and he also won the Indian version of the dance reality show "Dancing with the Stars" in 2009.

The striker said he hoped to organise a series of matches to raise funds for rebuilding in the state.

Bureau Report

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