This article was originally published by Vertilift Aviation Insights on December 26, 2020
Meghna Rajasekhar posted the above photograph in May 2020. A Tsunami survivor herself, she had clicked it during her recent visit to Carnicobar Island in the Andamans. The picture unleashed a wave of emotions and memories, and I couldn’t help contacting her. We spoke about our shared experiences of the fateful day of December 26, 2004, and the journey dictated by fate after that.
A lot has appeared in the media, and books have been written about it. Even today my course-mate did a programme on his YouTube channel https://youtu.be/uevSkC6Nc1g . Heroes emerged among the ruins left by the tragedy. All those bearing the brunt of the disaster were left traumatised. The trauma was accompanied by other losses ranging from loss of property at the very least, to the loss of loved ones. In a few cases, the loss was complete, and none among the family survived. The criteria of selection for survival can never be zeroed in upon, and the unfathomable nature of the universe, with its own set of rules, was on display. The power of the water in form of 30-foot waves was such that the man-made structures appeared to have been made of cardboard. Huge chunks of cement slabs were floating, as were huge tree trunks. The sound inside the water seemed to be that of 100s of muted explosions taking place continuously.
The photograph also reminded me, that it was time to acknowledge some of the heroes, because of whom I am writing this story. What is also peculiar about the disaster, and I am sure the feeling is quite the same among all the survivors, is that everyone has a unique perspective about what happened. It is like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. Here is a story of one such blind man.
It was 0630 AM, the day after Christmas of 2004. A lazy Sunday with bright sunlight and a clear sky. The Ship had brought fresh vegetables to Carnicobar from the mainland in time for Christmas, and Simrat (my better half of four years), having woken up early, had decided to cook “saag”. She was in the kitchen when the tremors occurred. I was in a “semi-sleep” mode, and kids Amritpal (2.5 Yrs) and Jasnoor (1.5 years) were sleeping next to me.
She immediately opened the door of our ground floor house and rushed in to wake me up. We picked up the kids and ran outside. Once outside, she told me to switch off the cooking gas as the “saag” was still cooking. She held on to the kids while I went inside to switch off the gas. The scooter was standing right there with the keys still in it. I also wanted to pick up what I thought were essential items; I picked up my laptop and a Panasonic video camera. I tried to pick up a few other things when I heard Simrat shouting “paani aa raha hai jaldi aao”.
Meanwhile, there was confusion and chaos with Sqn Ldr Dihot who stayed diagonally opposite to us wanted to drop his kids directly from the first-floor terrace area. We shouted and told them to use the stairs and avoid injuring them.
I rushed outside, and Simrat showed me the cracks on the road. We (Dihots and us) started moving away towards the high ground; the water was about ankle deep. We could have rushed straight to the high ground inland, but there was a barbed wire which was recently put across the path and because of which we would have had to follow the road that was parallel to the coast.
While rushing past the block where we had the Christmas party the night before, Sqn Ldr Sachin Kadam from his first-floor balcony indicated everyone to come up to his house and avoid the water.
The decision was made, and we rushed into the house. As the water continued to rise, all of us reached the roof of the first-floor house. On the roof, in addition to us, there were the Rodrigues (including parents), Dihots, Rajsekhars, Maheshwars (COO), Doctor Garima’s parents and domestic helps among others totalling to 30 odd souls.
As the water kept rising, I was filming with the camera and saw the power and havoc which could be wreaked by the sea. The helicopter was also airborne, but knowing the limitations and having been recently qualified in an Airborne Sea Search & Rescue role, I knew it would be of very little help in the situation facing us.
It was then, that the first of the enormous wall of water of over 30 ft height stuck. With prayers on our lips, we awaited our fate. I was carrying Jasnoor while Amritpal was with Simrat. Suddenly the house broke under us like a house of cards, and we all found ourselves in water.
What happened next was decided purely by fate. Despite having been at the same place and at the same time, fate had something different for each one of the souls there.
Simrat, who did not know how to swim, lost grip on Amritpal and got caught in a wave which took her towards the shore and after having been entirely at the mercy of the wave, she got caught in the tree debris. After a couple of waves of varied intensity, she made her way across to the ground next to the runway, away from the shore.
Meanwhile, I held onto Jasnoor and got hold of a log about four foot in length and a foot in diameter. It had a serration on its end where I could grip it. So, I held on to the log with one hand, and with the other, I tried to make sure Jasnoor could breathe. It was a losing battle, with all types of debris such as massive logs and cement blocks tossed about by the powerful waves; each capable of crushing us.
As the struggle continued, I became aware that I had been taken towards the open sea by the waves. After what seemed an eternity, I could also see the helicopter hovering some distance away over the destroyed houses and waited for whatever the fate had in store next.
Jasnoor had stopped responding, and she had taken in a lot of water. My strength was fading away. With no sense of time, something told me that there is nothing I could do. Unable to hold onto her, I was forced to release her. Now gripping the log with both hands, I could feel her floating next to my leg for a long time.
I could also hear loud bangs which seemed to be coming from the wave striking the shore and uprooting of trees. After some more time had passed, I could not hold onto the log any longer, and something told me “Let Go”. I did precisely that, in a way relieved, that it’s over. Immediately, the water pushed me down, and now I was entirely at the mercy of the sea.
As I went in, my feet brushed against sand. I then thought there might still be a chance, and I started swimming towards the surface with the remaining strength. As I came up and broke surface through debris, I found that the wave had taken me towards the shore, and, was now taking me back towards the open sea. As the wave was receding, I caught the aerial roots of what probably was a banyan tree and held onto it. The water was about neck deep. After that, I made my way to the shore.
It was this tree that the photograph reminded me off.
I was sitting on a large log when I was called out by a local. In Hindi, he asked me what happened, and during the conversation, I came to know he was a local and like every day was out collecting coconuts. He offered me coconut water, and I asked him his name and if he knew the way to the runway.
He said his name was “Joseph” and he knew the way to the runway. I requested him to guide me towards the runway. After some time, I followed him, as he moved ahead of me making sure to clear broken glass, debris and possibly snakes etc. from my path as I was barefoot. After some time, we crossed a barbed wire fence and came upon an old road which I recognised as a place beyond the fuel dump and a couple of old, dilapidated buildings (as I remember now).
After that, I saw the familiar green Maruti of Sqn Ldr M Girdhar (he was on leave in Delhi) driven by the Chief Admin Officer (Gp Capt Onkar Singh) with the Chief Engineering Officer besides him. They asked me to hop in. Both of us (Joseph & I) got in, and I asked them if they have seen Simrat. There was no answer. Obviously, they had no idea.
We reached next to the runway, and I hopped out and started looking. I was extremely relieved when I saw her, so was she. We held on to each other, not speaking, relieved and at the same time with an unspeakable amount of grief. The time now was around 0945. Joseph disappeared wanting to check on his family.
After a cursory examination by a young doc, who pronounced me fit, I set off to the office where I got out off my night suit and donned overalls and flying shoes before setting out to search for the kids.
In my heart, I knew.
After every round of aimless searching between the runway and trying to reach what was left of the house, my strength was sapping away, but I was hoping and praying for another miracle. Meanwhile, with the available Dornier, evacuations were on and a team of doctors had arrived from Port Blair. It was getting dark, and hopes had faded away.
The Naval Doctor, a Gynaecologist, Lt Cdr Chawla spotted me and despite my protests made me lie down and examined me. He did not “let go” and immediately started a drip and shouted out to the Chief Operations Officer and spoke to him. With the daylight fading, the last flight of the day was about to get airborne. The aircraft was loaded and had started up with the doors about to close.
A decision was then made, which saved my life. A couple of low priority casualties (with minor injuries) were deplaned, and we (self and wife) boarded the aircraft. We had to “Let Go”.
At Port Blair, the Doctor was from the navy and immediately diagnosed me to be a case of “aspiration Pneumonia”. I had lost consciousness by the time I reached the hospital. My lungs were giving up, but the Doctor did not “Let Go”. For the whole night, the Nurse who had an off for the night did not “Let Go” and stayed up all night beside me ever watchful. With the tremors continuing, we alternated between a tent and the bed which was in a makeshift ICU ( a Gym). The friends and family did not “Let Go” either. Help came in the form of bare necessities of life such as clothes and cash, (I had handed over the flying shoes to a colleague who was staying behind) sent by parents with a pilot of an Air India flight. Wg Cdr Babu, who had reached the hospital, took Simrat home to change into a set of clothes provided by Mrs Babu. A distant relative Lt Cdr Bisht and his wife Soni helped by searching Port Blair for a set of shoes/clothes. The treatment continued.
On December 29, we were on board a Chennai Bound IL-76 aircraft. On reaching Chennai cargo terminal, with no transportation available, and wanting to go to the Civil terminal, we searched for an auto/taxi. A Mercedes stopped and enquired if he could help. The citizen did not “let go” and dropped us to the civil terminal.
At the civil terminal, with no flight to Mumbai and still needing medical assistance, we decided to go to Military Hospital, Chennai. An off duty Air India pilot proceeding to his hotel then did not “Let Go” and insisted on dropping us to the Hospital. He left only after ensuring that the treatment had started in the ICU.
What happened next is another story; however, the crux lies in recognising that life is a series of experiences in which the decision of “letting go” is an important one.
We have never been able to adequately express our gratitude to the persons who did not “Let us Go”. Even though we have them in our thoughts every single day.
Hopefully, this would reach them, and, like every single year on this day, we remember them with gratitude for not “Letting Go”.
The point to ponder upon is when should one decide to “Let Go” or “Not Let Go”. I leave it to the better judgement of the reader with an input that it is quite an important decision to make and lives depend upon it.
Featured image: Vertilift Aviation Insights
Wg Cdr (retd.) Bhupinder S. Nijjar is an Indian Air Force (IAF) veteran and military helicopter pilot with more than 25 years of experience. His training as an Air Defense system specialist followed by a tenure helped him keenly watch the UAM and UAS space over the years besides taking him on a trip to Hawaii. Wg Cdr Nijjar is currently embarking on another life path that links up the SMS, Aviation, MBA-LSCM, and Research & Writing skillsets since his retirement in June 2020. He blogs at Vertilift Aviation Insights.