rescue mission tribune team at epicentre
Jungle Chatti/Kedarnath, June 23
At Jungle Chatti, located just east of the Kedarnath shrine, some 1,000 pilgrims, were waiting to be evacuated on helicopters. These were survivors of the Gaurikund-Kedarnath axis - the epicentre of the June 16 floods in the state.
Jungle Chatti is the name of the camping site and ‘Chatti’ in the local language means makeshift shelter. This shelter lies on the 18-km Gaurikund-Kedarnath trek.
At Badrinath shrine - more than 135 km east of Jungle Chatti - another 9,000 persons needed to be moved to a safe location. At Harsil, another 4,000 awaited evacuation even as Army troopers rescued another 800 from Yamnotri and shepherded them to the relative safety of Harsil.
With rain predicted over the next two days, the focus today was on extricating survivors, who were without any shelter, at Jungle Chatti and Yamunotri. At Jungle Chatti, the only option was to use helicopters with dark clouds threatening to stall the effort.
When the clouds cleared up in the afternoon, the Army and IAF launched an unprecedented operation to use helicopters to start a “shuttle service” to pick up pilgrims. The aim was to pick up everyone from Jungle Chatti.
At around 1 pm at Gauchar, the Deputy Commander of the Army’s Para-brigade did a last-minute check. Then, he was airlifted to Jungle Chatti. And, the operation began!
Army helicopters from the Jalandhar-based 661 Aviation Squadron flew in for the specific task. By afternoon, the Central Army Commander Lt Gen Anil Chait and the IAF’s Assistant Chief of Air Operations Air Vice-Marshall SRK Nair had arrived at Gauchar.
The IAF commander, wearing a pilot’s dungaree, was seen managing the flow of pilgrims on board the Mi-17 helicopters from Badrinath.
The Tribune team landed at Jungle Chatti on board one of the helicopters to witness the operation. In a swift effort lasting over two hours, pilots of the 661 Army Aviation and six Dhruv helicopters of the IAF picked up many small lots of pilgrims and dropped them at nearby helipads at Phata and Gaurikund.
As the Army Aviation team, led by Lt-Col Manoj Tripathi and Major Nitin Chaudhary, Major A Anand and Major Hitendra Singh, was carrying out the final sorties, Lt-Gen Anil Chait - at the Gauchar base - checked up with the troop leaders on the ground, “Has Jungle Chatti been cleared? I want confirmation.”
Soon enough, the IAF -- flying in close coordination -- landed its last sorties. At the Gauchar base, Gen Chait told reporters, “Jungle Chatti was the toughest operation”.
Till yesterday, landing at the makeshift helipad at Jungle Chatti was not possible. Pilots were doing daredevilry by landing just one side of the under-belly ‘ski’ of the helicopter on the helipad with the other ‘ski’ hanging over the ledge. Paratroopers from the Indian Army’s special forces - trained in mountain warfare - had been dropped from helicopters on June 19. Their mandate was to search for survivors on the mountain side on which pilgrims - looking to save themselves from the raging mudslide - had climbed on to.