Beas search massive and first-of-its-kind: Senior official

By Vishal Gulati,

Mandi (Himachal Pradesh) : The search for a group of Hyderabad engineering students washed away in the Beas river near here is not only massive in scale involving some 550 rescuers, but first of its kind in a treacherous terrain, strong current, and low visibility in churned up silt, a senior official said.

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Divers from the National Disaster Response Force and the army scouring the river bed full of jagged rocks and boulders just rely on the sense of touch to locate and pull out the bodies, the official said.

It is a tough task.

Now an unmanned aerial vehicle is also to be deployed to speed up the search.

While seven bodies have been fished out of the river, the operation continued Thursday for the fourth day to locate the remaining 17 of the 24 students and a tour operator. They vanished in the flash flood-like surge in the Beas river after water from a nearby hydropower project was released without a warning, officials said.

“Our divers are basically facing the problem of poor visibility. The river bed is full of mud and silt. There are also big boulders and rocks. It’s only through feeling they are recognizing the objects lying beneath,” National Disaster Management Authority vice-chairman M. Shashidhar Reddy, who reached the accident spot Thursday, told IANS.

A special underwater camera to locate the bodies was deployed Wednesday.

“The underwater camera has not made much success (due to muddy water). Now, we are going to deploy a UAE (unmanned aerial vehicle) Friday that will continuously recce the total area of operation,” Reddy said in an interview.

More than 550 rescue workers from various agencies, including National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the army, the Sashastra Seema Bal, the ITBP and the state police, continued with the dawn-to-dusk operation in over 15-km long downstream stretch of the river from the Larji hydropower project dam to the Pandoh dam.

Reddy said: “Fifteen more NDRF divers will soon join the search operation. This will increase their total number to 39. We are reviewing their requirement from time to time. If need be, more will join soon.”

Reddy said this was the first-of-its-kind search operation.

“Earlier, we did boat capsize operations. In this case, the terrain is difficult and, moreover, there is a constant flow of water. At some points the river is narrow and steep. With the melting of glaciers, especially during the daytime, the flow suddenly rises. So our focus of the operation is more concentrated in early hours when the flow is almost constant.”

He said most of the seven bodies recovered so far were close to the accident site and they were either trapped under the rocks or sunk in the silt.

The body of T. Upendra, recovered Thursday morning, was entangled in rocks near the accident spot, said the rescuers.

“From today (Thursday) onwards, we are expecting that the bodies, after they get bloated, would automatically start surfacing in the water. But it can take one or two days more here as the water is cold,” Reddy said.

Experts say the rate of body’s decay slows in cold.

More than 60 students and faculty members of the V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology in Hyderabad were on an excursion to Manali.

Some of them were getting themselves photographed on the bank of the river Sunday evening when a wall of water washed them away.

“The river level suddenly increased due to release of water from the Larji hydropower project dam, located near the accident spot, without warning,” witnesses said.

The police have registered a case against the hydropower project authorities for causing death by negligence and endangering life of others.

The case has been registered on the basis of eyewitness’s’ accounts that the hooter was not blown by the project officials before releasing the water into the river.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])