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Selfie to father before girl falls silent
3 suspended for river tragedy

Students pose for pictures in Himachal’s Thalot just before water from the dam rushed in on Sunday evening
Students who survived the tragedy at a news conference at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh on Monday. (PTI)

Hyderabad, June 9: Around 7 last evening, Raja Reddy received a selfie from his 21-year-old daughter Srinidhi’s cellphone, showing her giggling with college friends on a rock in the middle of a mountain river.

Two hours later, he heard a TV newscaster say that 24 students of the Hyderabad engineering college where his daughter studied had been swept away by water released from a dam into the river Beas as they toured Himachal Pradesh.

Four bodies — three of them female — have been found so far and a search is on for the rest of the missing students of the V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology and a tour operator who was with them.

Himachal chief minister Virbhadra Singh has ordered a magisterial probe and suspended two senior engineers and a fitter at the Larji Hydropower Project for alleged negligence amid a controversy over whether an alarm was sounded before the water release.

“My daughter sounded so happy when she spoke to me,” a disconsolate Raja Reddy, a Karimnagar resident, told The Telegraph. He had made one call after another to Srinidhi’s phone since last night but none was answered.

This morning, Raja and wife Anuradha, still unaware of their daughter’s fate, were among the throng of parents at Hyderabad airport, desperate to accompany Telangana home minister Narasimha Reddy on his flight to Delhi en route to tragedy site Thalot, 61km from Mandi. The minister took 15 of them along on his Air India flight.

A raft in a rescue operation on the Beas in Mandi on Monday. (PTI)

“Why can they not take us instead of the officials? We are worried about our children,” a distraught Anuradha said after missing out.

A few hours after the couple caught a late morning flight, the government came out with the list of the missing after talking to the college. It had Srinidhi’s name.

Some 49 second-year electronic instrumentation engineering students, accompanied by three teachers, had left on what the college PRO called a 10-day “study-cum-excursion tour” starting June 3.

They reached Shimla on June 7 after visiting Delhi, Agra and Chandigarh and would have next toured Gujarat and Maharashtra. A planned June 6 trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar was cancelled following the clash there.

They were on their way back from Manali when they stopped by to take pictures and some of them waded into the knee-deep river in the failing light. Suddenly, water rushed in from the Larji dam 300 metres away.

“My daughter said there was a big rock in the middle of the river and everyone wanted to reach the top of that rock. Some reached it by stepping on a series of small rocks,” 21-year-old P. Lavanya’s father said.

“She said she had been a little slow in following her friends and noticed the rising water levels. She shouted but the rest did not hear her.”

He added: “Soon, there was water everywhere and no trace of her friends. Since my daughter was on the river’s edge, she could make her way back. One of the teachers pulled her to safety.”

Chief minister Virbhadra said the dam authorities had sounded the alarm (siren) but the students ignored it. Told that many of the 28 survivors and local people said no alarm was sounded, he insinuated a political motive: “It depends on the political thought of the person who said no hooter was heard.”

The signboard warning people against stepping into the water was illegible: it hasn’t been repainted for years. It’s in Hindi, anyway, which few of the Hyderabad-based students would’ve been able to read.

“Even the local people didn’t stop us,” a student said. Those suspended are resident engineer Mandeep Kumar, executive engineer M.S. Dhatwalia and fitter Harbans.

Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani, who visited the site, said local people had complained to her about the absence of security measures.

In Hyderabad, parents assembled at the college since as early as 3am were furious at the lack of information.

“Why were the students taken to the riverbed after sunset? The management didn’t tell us whether it was a study tour or a picnic trip. They just collected Rs 15,000 from each student,” PTI quoted Naik, father of student Banothu Rambabu whose body has been found, as saying.

The college called a news conference where PRO Gopal Reddy said the management had obtained all the parents’ consent to the trip and insured the students against accidents, as is the norm among private colleges.

He claimed the three teachers had tried to stop the students from entering the water, probably in response to Virbhadra blaming the teachers.

An NGO has petitioned the state human rights panel to have the college management arrested for allegedly failing to hire professional tour guides or to brief the students about the dangers.

The four bodies were expected to reach Hyderabad tonight. So were most of the survivors, along with the parents and the ministers and officials from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh who had flown out today.

Aided by victim locator cameras and inflatable boats, a team of Himachal police, the National Disaster Response Force and divers searched a 20km stretch of the river.

“We are also searching the weeds on the riverbanks inch by inch,” a source said. “Many of the boys and girls may have died of shock.”

“The possibility of finding anyone alive is now almost non-existent,” said Disaster Response Force commandant Jaideep Singh.

The powerful current of the cold river, fed by glaciers, could have smashed the victims against the rocks strewing it. At least one of the bodies was found stuck between two boulders.