| Evacuees arrive at Calcutta airport from Port Blair on Sunday. Picture by Aranya Sen
With 10,000 Calcuttans away at various holiday destinations, 5,000 to 6,000 of whom are stranded in tsunami-hit locales, anxious relatives and friends on Sunday thronged the city airport and airline offices, or made frantic telephone calls to travel agents for clues to their whereabouts.
The season began late last month and the hottest spots are Port Blair, Vizag, Chennai, Singapore, Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Bali and Kuala Lumpur. Holiday-makers are attracted by the low-priced round-trip tickets and stay in good hotels offered by Singapore and Malaysia airlines.
'While the majority is in the big towns, about 140 tourists, mostly honeymooners, are in Bali,' said Mandira Kapoor, director, Club Seven holidays. 'Their relatives here have been pressing for details of their whereabouts, but we have not been able to establish contact with them. They have not called either.'
Since the beginning of December, the city has seen tourists flocking to Southeast Asia like never before.
Confirming the exodus, Satish Kapoor, sales manager, Thai Airways (eastern India) said: 'Both-way flights on the Calcutta-Bangkok circuit went chock-a-block in the past seven days.' The past 10 days saw about 2,000 flying there.'
Manoj Saraf, managing director, Gainwell Travels, said though more than 100 advance bookings for tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, were made, 'we're expecting cancellations now that the area has become a disaster zone'.
It was easier to evacuate 119 people who went to Port Blair, capital city of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, by air during the day. Indian Airlines, which ferried over 1,600 Calcuttans in the past four days to Port Blair, operated two Boeings and an Airbus after reports reached here of 'hairline cracks' appearing in the Port Blair runway.
The lone Airbus flew in the passengers minus luggage.
'The Airbus had taken off from Port Blair amid panic and confusion, without picking up luggage. The relief plane, a Boeing, will bring the luggage,' said Calcutta airport director Rajendra Pal. A number of Airports Authority of India (AAI) officers were on the relief plane to assess the extent of damage.
Debasish Roy, a bank employee from Salt Lake who had gone to Port Blair five days ago with wife Sonali and five-year-old son Chitrak, recalled: 'The tremors swept the island capital around 6.35 am with increasing intensity. By the time the ground stopped shaking, several old buildings had collapsed, and many cars and boats had been swallowed by the tsunami.'
'The situation in Port Blair is grave, with no water or electricity. There have been many casualties and medical services have been affected,' said Roy, who was among Sunday's evacuees.
At Baidyabati, in Hooghly district, Haradhan Ghosh, an employee of the Reserve Bank of India, and his family sat glued to the television through Sunday for news on the situation in the Maldives, in whose capital city their only son, Ratul, works as a bartender.
'The water level is rising. Khusub Ali (a friend from Barrackpore) and I are trying to get out of this place,' Ratul had managed to call his home around 11.00 am and say. 'After that we lost all contact with them,' a family member said.
Sanjoy Sett, chairman, Travel Agents Association of India, eastern region, said: 'Flights to all destinations in Southeast Asia went full over the past 10 days. After the earthquake, Phuket airport is closed and several hundreds are stranded there. We'll try to bring them to Bangkok tomorrow by road and fly them back.'
Flights to Bangkok and Singapore from Calcutta are sold out for the next four days.
Indian Airlines will fly on Monday three Boeings to Port Blair from Calcutta, beginning 4.30 am, and two more on Tuesday to evacuate people.
'We're unable to fly the bigger Airbus as only 6,000 feet of the 11,000-foot runway is available. We're discouraging passengers booked on later dates, since many areas are flooded and power and phone lines have snapped,' Indian Airlines station manager at Port Blair, Arpan Sanyal, said.
Jet Airways will operate daily return flights on the Calcutta-Port Blair circuit.