Anatomy of a Disaster

How a 10-ft-high, kilometre-wide wave of destruction was formed
Valley of death
CITADEL OF FAITH The devastation around the jyotirlinga temple at Kedarnath (Photo: AP)
HOPING AGAINST HOPE Photos of pilgrims who have gone missing, mostly from Kedarnath, are displayed on a wall at the entrance to the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun
Relatives search for the names of the missing pilgrim at the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun
Raj Kishor at Doon hospital.

On June 17, like every morning for the past seven years, Raj Kishor, a thin, sprightly man of 52, was up well before 6 am. He owned a small shop in the bustling bazaar near the Kedarnath temple where he sold idols of various deities, and gemstones prescribed by astrologers as cures for ill-fortune and a host of nebulous ailments. The throng of devotees at the temple—one of the 12 jyotirlinga temples in the country—formed early, and he had to be on time to catch the morning rush. Because it was raining hard, as it had been for days, the rush was less than usual, even though the number of people in town far exceeded what was normal even by the standards of June, the peak of the pilgrim season.

The mule owners had been on a partial strike since 12 June, the day the rain had started. They were protesting the increasing use of helicopters by pilgrims to travel from Gaurikund to Kedarnath. The 14 km land journey on a non-motorable track was arduous, and mules were the only source of transport used by pilgrims unable to walk the distance till private helicopter firms started operating in the area. Now there were ten such services and the mule owners were losing business. Wary of the strike, helicopter services had also been curtailed, but even so, new pilgrims continued to pour into the town. By the evening of 16 June, the number of people in the town, including those enroute from Gaurikund, was believed to be in the tens of thousands.

The rain had intensified on the evening of 15 June. By the next day, the level of water in the Mandakini river had risen and had begun spilling over into the Kedarnath valley, a flat expanse in the midst of snow-clad mountains. Scientists believe this was a lake bed hundreds of years ago, as is apparent in an 1882 photograph of the shrine available at the Geological Survey of India website. The shrine stands in splendid isolation among the peaks, surrounded by a few thatched huts, with no sign of the pilgrim town as it stood on 16 June, with its thriving bazaar and the dozens of rickety hotels that had sprung up in defiance of any environmental or architectural concerns.

The rain did not deter the pilgrims; many of them were following the footsteps of their ancestors. Before turning in for the night, some called or texted back home to let their family or friends know how they were doing on the eve of the darshan. Uma Devi Mishra, a sixty-year-old woman from Hardoi called home at 9.30 pm just before she was to take a mule ride to reach the vicinity of the shrine. “It’s raining,” she said “but I have to go.” She was part of a group of 19. Gauri Lal Meena, a constable in Rajasthan Police, was with his wife when he last called home at 10 pm on the 16th from Ramabara, the last halt on the trek to Kedarnath before the track starts ascending. He said he would be visiting the temple in the morning. None of these people have been heard from since their last call.

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(Photo: ISRO | Imaging: DOWN TO EARTH)

(Left) 1. Water comes from the glacier in a single stream   2. A large amount of debris lies in the path of this water   3. Water splits into two streams   4. Water continues in thin channels   5. The Kedarnath settlement

(Right) 1. The water channel is now broader   2. The debris has disappeared, suggesting it was carried down by the water   3. A third stream has been formed   4. Water is flowing in from all directions   5. Devastated Kedarnath

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Upstream from Kedarnath lies the Kedar Dome, a mountain clearly visible from the town. Along its flank lies a natural lake called the Gandhi Sarovar, perched at the edge of one of the snouts of the Chorabari glacier, the source of the Mandakini River. The lake, also called Chorabari Tal, was named after Mahatma Gandhi when some of his ashes were immersed here in 1948. Legend has it—and almost every geographical feature in the vicinity of Kedarnath has been embraced by legend—that this is the lake from where Yudhishthira began his ascent to heaven, as described in the last parva of the Mahabharata. A travel website describes the lake in the most beguiling of terms: ‘The lake presents an awesome scenario of nature, which would definitely mesmerise any visitor. The ice perched on the surface of this lovely lake makes an enthralling effect. Its tranquil ambiance coupled with the gentle cold breeze heals all the worldly worries.’

But on the morning of 17 June, something very different was unfolding at the glacier-fed lake. Anil Kulkarni, a glaciology expert at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, describes the sequence of events. The rain falling from 12 June, apart from accumulating more water in the lake, would have increased the melt off from glaciers and ice-capped mountains by a factor of three or four because it was so much warmer than the snow. Then, on the night of 16 June, the rain turned into a cloudburst, a phenomenon that can bring down an immense amount of water in a very short span of time. Dehradun recorded 370 mm of rain on that single night. The figure was, in all likelihood, higher at Kedarnath. To put this in perspective, this is more than half the rainfall Delhi receives in an entire year.

Images taken in early June by RESOURCESAT-1 (above), a remote sensing satellite with a resolution of 20 metres built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, show two arcs of water winding down in a necklace towards Kedarnath from the lake with a huge pile of debris separating the two arcs, which probably served as a natural dam to the lake. Perhaps, Kulkarni suggests, with so much water accumulated in the lake, a breach could have been caused by an ice avalanche crashing into the lake. Whatever the final trigger, images from 21 June show a third arc of water descending from the lake into the town, the pile of debris now no longer visible. What is clear is that sometime after 6.30 am, on the morning of 17 June, the lake burst, and a wall of water headed down to the town. The pile of debris, including massive boulders weighing over a tonne, was swept along with the flow. In the centuries-long history of this pilgrimage, no event of comparable magnitude has been recorded.

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Raj Kishor was walking towards his shop when he saw a dark wall of water, descending fast onto the rear of the shrine, swelling on the horizon, threatening to engulf the entire town. From his hospital bed in Dehradun, with the horror still palpable on his face, he compares the sound to the roaring “of a thousand lions”. The wave hit and shook the whole valley. He knew instinctively he had very little time. He saw some people run to the higher reaches of the mountain, but he ran towards the shrine whose entrance faced away from the lake. He was thrown in through the open door, as the water, against the flow, forced its way into the shrine. He recalls nothing afterwards; he fell unconscious for a few hours. When he regained his senses, he couldn’t walk; his leg was fractured. It was late in the afternoon. The town had been decimated and a silence had descended over the debris. “Sab barbad ho gaya,” he says.

The first pictures of the devastation taken by the army show water marks three metres above the ground on the few buildings that survived the deluge. An army officer coordinating the work says the wave, about a kilometre wide, spread across the valley like the wings of an albatross, and flattened everything in its way. The shrine stood firm as the deluge passed. “[It] was where the survivors found refuge. The tempest could not breach the citadel of faith,” says Naresh Kukreti, 34, a priest at the Kedarnath temple. The truth, however, was more prosaic, if equally remarkable. TV footage shows that a huge boulder, among the largest in the debris, had landed a few metres from the rear of the temple, splitting the flow of water and protecting the rear of the shrine from much of its fury.

Inside the temple, Kukreti heard an explosion before the deluge hit. He says hundreds of people rushed inside—an exaggerated figure, but certainly scores of people did seek refuge there. The outer door was open but somehow the inner door of the shrine slammed shut. That did not prevent the water from forcing its way even within the sanctum sanctorum. It reached a height of six feet, he says, flowing over his head, before the pressure forced open the western door of the temple. The wave had passed and the water flowed out, reducing the level inside.

Even so, many of Kukreti’s friends and several of the other priests are missing. “Since it was raining, the temple was not very crowded. Mostly the devotees were in the 50 to 60 guest houses in town,” he explains. After the deluge there seemed to be no one alive outside the shrine, only rocks and rubble piled up around the temple.

The guest houses in the vicinity of the shrine had come up not long ago. They were unregulated and mostly unregistered. One such guest house was the New Tewari Hotel, 100 metres south of the temple. Mukesh Bigani of Indore, in his mid-30s, called his brother at 7.10 am, immediately after the deluge had passed. He told his brother that a toofan (‘tempest’) was underway, and the strong water current was shaking the foundations of the building. There is nowhere to go, he told his brother. The hotel manager, he said, was resigned to their fate.

There was nothing that could be done to shift to a safe place, he added, as there was water all around. In the worst case, the owner had said, they would all “die together”. The call got disconnected. After that, there was no response. Bigani was one among a group of 17 staying at the hotel. They are all missing. The hotel is now just a mound of rubble. Many such hotels, where people stayed in large numbers, were flattened and their occupants are missing, though no list has been prepared.

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As the flash flood made its way down along the course of the Mandakini and then the Alkananda river, the valley shrunk, and the water level rose by as much as 10 metres, causing heavy destruction en route.

About three kilometres downstream, at Rambara, “a boy yelled ‘water’,” says 60-year-old Saudam Singh of Indore. “I turned around to see a wave like a mountain rushing down towards me.” He was swept away like a twig in a whirlpool. He got entangled in a tree and water rushed past him. He could hear the frantic cries of people being swept away, some calling out “har har mahadev”. He saw mules, people and trees carried off by the current. He does not remember anything after that. He was part of a group of five people; the other four are missing. He regained consciousness when someone shook him and told him to climb uphill. The torrent had passed, virtually erasing Rambara, with its dozen or so guest houses, from the face of the earth. Shops, people and a vast number of mules had disappeared. Just the marshy landscape remained, reminiscent of quicksand. He was drenched. Those who survived covered themselves with plastic sheets. It was cold and wet. “It was like hell there. Yahi thi Mahadev ki marzi (‘This was Shiva’s’s will’).”

Rakesh Lal, a mule owner, was preparing his mules for the day. Some friends had come to visit him. Because of the strike he was under pressure not to go to work. “I last saw my friends when they swam past me,” he says. His brother corrects him: “when they were swept away.” Rakesh had a miraculous escape. His right leg got stuck between two boulders and was twisted and turned by gushing water. He has multiple fractures, nerve-damage and no feeling left in his leg. At the Dehradun hospital, he looked dazed. “There were some who survived, mostly those who managed to climb the hills. Some held on to the floating bodies to prevent themselves from drowning,” he said, adding, with a note of urgency, “send the rescue team to the jungles. They will die of the cold.”

Within hours, 60 km downstream in Kakragad, the Mandakini Magpie Bird Watcher’s Camp was swept away. Its owner, Yashpal Singh Negi, had left the camp the night before. Afraid of flooding, he had spent the night in a mountain village. When he returned, only two rooms remained. The lower reaches of the hill had been washed away. “I have never seen such a torrent in the river in my entire life,” says Negi.

A total of about 13 km of road has caved in at a hundred different places along the river, ensuring it will be months before any semblance of a road link is established. At every bend in the river’s course, the earth on the bank was carved away by the water. All that stood above—buildings, hotels and roads—collapsed and disappeared. Landslides occurred at 110 locations and nine bridges collapsed. The tragedy was not man-made but everything else that humans had done over the past few decades in these hills—unregulated construction, the lack of a building code, the disregard for environment and safety—has contributed manifold to the final toll, which will only be known months from now, if ever.

Seven hours later, the impact of the wall of water was felt near Rishikesh, almost 250 km away. In the capital city of Dehradun life seemed normal. It was only in the evening when army helicopters flew over Kedarnath that they saw the devastation and informed the rest of the world of what had happened. Raj Kishor and Kukreti were airlifted on 18 June.

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On 20 June, the magnitude of the crisis was finally understood in the corridors of powers. At the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation Centre (UDMC), located in the premises of the state secretariat in Dehradun, Executive Director Piyush Rautela says, “The problems are only going to get bigger.” He is referring to the thousands of missing people. “We have nothing to tell the people asking about them.” The disaster management effort so far has consisted of airlifting survivors and dropping food packets. A list of 1,800 survivors was prepared and pasted on the outer wall of Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. Those not in the list are considered missing.

There is no way the government can arrive at a figure of people who died or are missing. Most of the hotels in Kedarnath were unregulated and unregistered. There is no government interaction with pilgrims who arrive here, no registration, no count kept of those entering the shrines, and no health checks are mandated. Piyush Rautela has no idea what the government plans to do about it. He is worried, and the government will soon have to start taking measures to deal with the issue of dead bodies. “The spread of epidemics is a distinct possibility,” he says. The government’s plan of a mass cremation at Kedarnath is perhaps the only answer he has to the thousands of queries about those who are still missing.

Neither has the UDMC been able to create a mechanism whereby help—food, blankets and medicines—pouring in from various places could promptly be sent to the thousands stranded in the hills. Hundreds of tonnes of food are rotting in the Jolly Grant Airport as it could not airlifted for “technical reasons,” says Rautela.

Such apathy dogs the relief and rescue operation wherever the civil administration comes into the picture.

Inside the secretariat, on 20 June, regular meetings were taking place at the chief secretary’s office to deal with the situation. As we waited, a minister in the Tamil Nadu government with IAS officers met Bhaskaranand Joshi, secretary to the chief minister and the nodal officer of all the rescue work, in his chamber. Bhaskaranand offered them tea and assured that their relatives would be airlifted the same evening. A minister in the Bihar cabinet was rescued the day before on a priority basis.

This was on a day when some 15,000 stranded people were looking to be airlifted. The priority list was being prepared at the secretariat and instructions given to airlift only those whose names were on it. While survivors jostled to get a seat in the helicopter, priority was given to the people who could curry favour at the secretariat. Bhaskaranand refused to be drawn into a discussion of how some influential people were being given preference, ignoring objective criteria such as health, age or gender. “The media can write whatever they want to. I have no time to discuss this,” he reacted.

As instructions were passed on from the civil administration, officers coordinating the Army work reacted with disgust in private. They had already been mortified by the interruption caused to the relief work by the VIP visits which have continued despite Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde issuing an alert: “We advise all VIPs not to visit Uttarakhand now...such visits hamper their work.’’ It is another matter that two days before issuing the alert Shinde toured the flood-hit areas and a 24-seater MI 17 helicopter along with a civilian helicopter was diverted for the whole day. It was always unlikely that tragedy, however outsized, could jolt the civil administration into showing some consideration for ordinary people On the way back, when we stopped to visit Raj Kishor again at the hospital, we found him lying on his bed, his plastered leg crossed over the other. “All is well,” he said, betraying no emotion. What are you going to do now that nothing remains of the town, I asked. He thought for a moment and said, “Mahadev ki marzi (‘It is Shiva’s will’).’’ Under the circumstances, in Dehradun, it was the only possible answer.

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Note: This article was modified after it was published