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Lost and not found

- Family of 3 missing for 23 days in death valley

Pushpal Bhattacharya, a self-employed techie in Calcutta, spent almost a week in catastrophe-struck Uttarakhand in search of his wife’s maternal uncle and his family, who have been missing since June 15 on the way to Kedarnath. Pushpal’s friend and RPF member, Ajay Mukerjee, was with him, sharing the travails of a search that oscillated between Dehradun, Rishikesh and Hardwar from dawn to dusk. They recounted their mission to Metro.

THE LAST CALL

• Biswajit Mukherjee, 56, senior manager of UBI at Purulia regional branch.

• His wife, Chandana Mukherjee, 48, who runs a school for tiny tots.

• Their son, Barnik, 24, a final-year electronics and telecom student at Saroj Mohan Institute of Technology (SMIT) at Guptipara, Hooghly.

The Mukherjees were excited — as any family setting out on a holiday would be — when their train pulled in at Calcutta station on the night of June 12. A cool breeze had added to the excitement, as if the weather had sensed where they would be in another 24 hours: the cooler climes of Uttarakhand.

But that was not to be.

Like the pahari saying, “the hills have a mind of their own, usually quiet but tempestuous at times”, the Mukherjees of Khardah were caught in the vortex of a mountain maelstrom.

The family was in Hardwar on June 14 — evident from the cash withdrawal that Biswajit Mukherjee made from an ATM there.

The next day, they were at Sonprayag, about 7km from Gaurikund, which is the last motorable place on the way to Kedarnath. From Gaurikund, pilgrims trek 14km of “holy miles” — as they are locally called — on foot or mule-back.

The Mukherjees called some relatives around 10am from Sonprayag. “We are fine… heading for Gaurikund… take care.”

The next day, a massive cloudburst turned the mountains into a death zone — the swelling Mandakini swallowed everything that came in her path and giant rocks hurtled down the slopes. The Mukherjees were in the direct-impact zone and have been missing since. That call from Sonprayag was their last.

THE QUEST

JUNE 17: The breaking news in the morning froze us where we stood. All TV news channels were playing on the loop first images from Uttarakhand of concrete houses falling like Lego blocks. Immediately, and instinctively, we started making calls.

First the helpline numbers from the ticker on the TV screen, including those at Banga Bhavan in Delhi. Most of the lines were “busy” or had little “help” to offer. “What’s the name you said?”, “leave your number”, “we are trying our best….”

We spent the next 120 hours trying to gather information trickling in from Uttarakhand. We then decided to launch a search mission of our own despite the odds, partly because that’s the only option we had. We lodged a missing diary (1886 dated 20/06/2013) at Khardah police station and packed our rucksacks.

JUNE 22: We boarded Rajdhani Express, well aware that we were heading straight into an armageddon.

JUNE 23: We hired a cab in Delhi and reached Dehradun around 9pm, at least three-four hours behind schedule because of torrential rain, Roorkie onward. By the time we checked into a guesthouse, everything else had gone to sleep but the rain.

JUNE 24: All helicopter sorties bringing in survivors from the disaster zone landed at Jolly Grant airport on Rishikesh Road, around 24km from Dehradun. This was the first checkpoint where a relief camp was set up for the evacuated. After every sortie, officials pasted a fresh list of rescued pilgrims on the camp wall, triggering a scramble among the people searching for their near and dear ones. We, too, made a dash for the wall in anticipation.

Then, a friendly advice: “Go to Rishikesh police station and lodge a missing complaint.”

Our next stops were Himalayan Hospital near Jolly Grant; Combined Institute of Medical Science and Research, Synergy Institute of Medical Sciences, Doon Hospital, Max Super Speciality Hospital and Coronation Hospital in Dehradun; and GD Hospital in Rishikesh.

The survivors were airlifted to Jolly Grant or brought in buses to Rishikesh. Irrespective of their physical condition, they were straightaway taken to hospitals for a check-up, listed and given a parchi or letter declaring that he/she was a “survivor”.

The Mukherjees were not on any of the lists handed out by the hospitals and updated every two-three hours.

The crowd thins after dusk, the humming of choppers dies down and ambulance sirens go silent. The thunderclaps echoing in the mountains and the intermittent sound of relief trucks moving towards Jolly Grant break the eerie silence.

JUNE 25: The administration had opened four information centres — at Jolly Grant, Sahastradhara helipad, Racecourse Police Lines (Dehradun) and Rishikesh bus stand. It was hard to get a toehold at the Rishikesh bus stand, the size of a small football field. Nevertheless, we inched through the crowd to help desks set up by various state governments, including a Bengal kiosk that was much smaller and inadequately manned than those of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. There was a medical camp, primarily for those rescued in the Rudraprayag area and brought in by bus.

People jostled near a control room where the names of rescued persons were read out over the public address system. Lists of people at relief camps, mostly hand-written in Hindi, were pasted on walls. We spent the day checking and rechecking lists containing names of 6,000 people. Or more.

JUNE 26: The action station was Rishikesh, but a round at Jolly Grant was mandatory. We approached a medical centre where a busload of survivors was taken for a check-up, the horror of the hills written on their traumatised faces. A thousand hands went up, thrusting photos of missing relatives into the bus windows: “Have you seen him?” The people inside shook their heads, a crestfallen hum descended.

Almost 30 minutes later, a little girl came out of the hospital. She was alone and her eyes stared blankly at the horizon. Our hearts sank.

The thought followed us as we drove towards the Hardwar police station, where a macabre roster of death was kept. The notice board contained photos and autopsy reports of corpses pulled out of the Ganga at Hardwar ghats. Some of the bodies, decomposed or mangled beyond recognition, were to be cremated soon.

We were on the threshold of a nervous breakdown, desperate and frustrated after watching the horror and suffering around us. The images moved even our cabbie, Munna, and he volunteered to drive us to Rudraprayag in the upper reaches. But a fresh landslide forced us to retreat from Devprayag.

The Mukherjees and (right) their route from Sonprayag to Kedarnath, from where they presumably went missing

JUNE 27: The news that the Racecourse Police Lines control room in Dehradun had a consolidated list of rescued and missing people gave us hope. But the names we were looking for weren’t listed. The overworked but helpful control room staff realised our predicament and transmitted a message to the Rudraprayag superintendent of police about the Mukherjees.

We were asked to collect a copy of the missing complaint from Rishikesh police station. We found out that a new process was in place. The general case diary had been abolished and a fresh FIR had to be lodged. The queue was long and the process took nearly four painstaking hours.

Officially, rescue missions in the Kedarnath and Gangotri route got over on this day. There was not much activity at the bus stand either, though many like us were still hanging around for news, or clues, about relatives missing on the Sonprayag-Gaurikund-Kedarnath stretch.

Kono khobor nei (no news so far).” We called home and decided to fly back the following day.

We saw life through a kaleidoscope of human nature: compassionate, chaotic and confusing. On the brighter side stood people from the ITBP, NDRF, army and local police and rank commoners tirelessly toiling to help others. Or, the 17-year-old boy going around with glasses of water: “Saab, paani peelo.” Or, the community kitchens along the roads serving free daal-roti to everyone.

On the chaotic side of the spectrum were netas squabbling over spoils or the mileage-seeking Baba and his cronies holding an audience at the gate on the exit road for ambulances!

After a listless week of sifting through countless lists, we realised how poor we are in specialised logistics despite being a global info-tech powerhouse.

Our search is on…along with the families of 11,000 people who are still missing.