| The tilted air traffic control tower in Car Nicobar. (PTI)
Car Nicobar, Dec. 28: For Naik Subedar Ilyas, the night is safer in the open airfield.
But then, he doesn't have much of a choice.
The Car Nicobar airbase, a symbol of the country's 'sovereignty' over the Andaman islands, has been virtually destroyed, not by enemy firepower but by a demonic sea.
Two days after giant waves pounded the base, officials put the toll at 110. 'We have found around 23 bodies, which have been buried. About 17 bodies are yet to be identified. Many persons are untraceable. The magnitude of the tragedy cannot be explained in words. The toll could be higher,' said wing commander P. Maheswar, who is coordinating relief and rescue work at the base, strategically one of the most important for air force operations in India.
'The airbase declares India's sovereignty over these islands in the Andamans and was equipped to handle any possible enemy attack. But now it seems we have to start from scratch once again,' Maheshwar said.
Only 6,000 feet of the 9,000-foot-long airstrip remains, while a makeshift control room ensures that the pilot makes a precise landing.
The air traffic control room has been destroyed. The earthquake and the tsunami combined to bring down its roof. The inspection bungalow, right on the beach, has been washed away, while only concrete floors remained of the officers' quarters.
As the AN 32 neared the runway, it was clear there were no beaches anymore ' the sea had eaten into the land. Trees had been uprooted and the concrete buildings had collapsed like a pack of cards.
Air force officials recalled that around 6.30 am on Sunday, they heard a rumbling sound. They soon realised that the buildings were shaking. 'We knew it was an earthquake and therefore we rushed out of our quarters. But suddenly we saw that some of our colleagues, whose quarters are situated just near the beach run towards us. I looked and saw that gigantic waves, at least 30 feet in height, rushing towards the island. I ran as fast as I could,' said Ilyas.
'We saw how our officers, women and children got caught in the waves. The waves crashed into iron gates and cleaved them out. Several women and children were sucked into the sea. We managed to run and clutch on to some trees on a high ground and were saved,' said Keshab Venkat, a sailor.
The handful of senior officers who survived the tsunami said everybody was worried about the earthquake, but nobody realised that death would rise from the ocean's depths. 'The people all lined up in open areas were sitting ducks for the waves,' added Raja Ram, an airbase staff.
'While I ran, I saw at a distance a Maruti car caught in the waves and rushing towards me. Luckily the car smashed against one side of a building and came out from the opposite direction along with the waves. That gave me some time to run in another direction and save myself.'