A flash flood, triggered by an outburst of a glacial lake, had barrelled through the Teesta river with huge volumes of water and debris, gobbling up everything in its path.
Malay Kumar Saha and his wife Kakali Saha, both 54, were fast asleep in their hotel room when a loud bang on their door by the staff asked them to evacuate due to the impending flash floods which struck Sikkim.
All of this happened around 2:30am last Wednesday in north Sikkim’s Lachen region.
The Saha couple was supposed to wake up early to visit Gurudongmar Lake – a high-altitude lake located at 17,000 feet and a popular tourist destination close to the Indo-China border, but fate had other plans.
“The intercom in our room rang and at the same time somebody banged on the door. A hotel employee told us to grab important belongings and evacuate the hotel immediately as a lake had burst and flood was coming. For the first few seconds we couldn’t even understand how to react,” said Malay.
The couple grabbed their medicines, cash and documents and rushed out with around 20 other tourists on the road.
The town had plunged into darkness and there was no mobile connection.
“In the pitch darkness, people were rushing uphill to reach a village. We couldn’t see the river but could hear it roaring. The deafening noise was enough to freeze anyone’s heart. The noise was interrupted by crashing sounds of landslides and trees crumbling,” he said.
After waiting in a village on a higher elevation for over two hours, the couple along with other tourists and locals returned to their hotels. It was only in the morning that they came to know that a flash flood, triggered by a lake outburst had barreled down the river Lachen, a tributary of the Teesta.
“As there was no mobile connectivity, we were unable to get the actual news. Some said it was a cloudburst, while some said that a dam had burst. Others said that a lake had burst due to an earthquake. All kinds of rumours were flying,” said Priyanka Balotra, 32, a resident of Delhi.
The Sahas were among other families who were stranded in the flood-hit remote town with no electricity and mobile connections sharing their traumatic experiences before the army rescued them.
Another couple, Balotra and her husband Sumit, both Delhi residents, shared their ordeal as they were stranded in Lachung for five days as the flood had washed away roads and bridges.
They had visited Gurudongmar and Yumthang in north Sikkim and were staying in a hotel in Lachung before returning to Gangtok.
Along with a few hundred tourists, the two families were airlifted by the army in a Mi-17 chopper of the IAF and dropped at Gangtok on Tuesday morning.
Airborne operations could not be started all these days due to inclement weather.
The first batch was rescued on Monday when the weather was clearer.
“We had only heard about such calamities and devastation and seen them in news and movies. But now we were a part of it. It reminded us of the Kedarnath disaster. For two days we couldn’t even call our families back home in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. On October 5, we talked to them from an army camp at Chaten, around four kilometres from Lachen,” said Balotra.
Each passing day, food supply was getting hit as the floods had washed away roads and bridges.
Both Lachung and Lachen were completely cut-off from the rest of Sikkim.
A village panchayat of Lachen helped in setting up a community kitchen after small hotels started to run out of food supplies.
Tourists were asked to visit the panchayat office daily for food.
“We had no inkling as to when we would be able to return home. Every day we would reach the army camp to get updates and contact our home. The army though had assured us that as soon as the weather clears up, airborne rescue operations would start. They provided us with food and helped us contact our families,” said Rajib Choudhury, a tourist from Assam who was stranded with his family at Lachen.
Not only the flash floods, rumours of another flash flood in the area created panic amongst those stranded.
“We were living under constant fear of being washed away, particularly at night when the entire town plunged into darkness. A day after the flash flood, a false alarm was triggered that another lake was on the verge of collapse. It was around 7pm. We had to scramble up the hill to reach a Buddhist monastery at least two kilometres uphill and spend the entire night there,” said 55-year-old Jayesh Khemani from Rajkot in Gujarat.
Khemani had come with his wife Varsha Khemani and their 22-year-old daughter Harita. They were airlifted to Gangtok on Tuesday.
“We are lucky that we are alive. No words can express what we and other people went through all these days. The army was, however, a tremendous support. We heaved a sigh of relief when we came to know of an army camp just four kilometres away. They even took the numbers of our family members back home and passed our messages that we were safe,” said a relieved Khemani.
While around 3,000 people, comprising mostly tourists, were stranded in north-Sikkim towns namely Lachen, Lachung and Chungthang until Sunday, around 500 were airlifted on Monday and brought back to Gangtok and Pakyong in Mi-17 and Chinook helicopters.
Source: Hindustan Times