The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Island of 600, only one alive

'Is anybody alive out there'

Nothing stirred on the island, no human voice of greeting or cry for help sounded.

The lighthouses weren't there, the houses were flattened along with everything else. It was a fruitless search.

'Koi zinda ho to awaaz do''

In one corner of the creek, there was movement. A man was waving a white cloth.

James Mathews, 42, was barely alive and the only one to be alive on the West Bay Island of Katchal, made famous on another new year when people rushed there to see the first sun of the millennium.

Over 600 people are feared to have died on the island. For eight days, Mathews lived on coconuts and hoped someone would come and pick him up.

When Lt Commander Rajiv Sharma, commanding officer of INS Tillangchang, was asked to look for survivors in the Nancowrie group of islands (Katchal is one of them), he knew it was going to be difficult. The water was rough and no ship could venture into it.

On Monday, Tillangchang reached West Bay, 14 hours from Port Blair.

'Our brief was to look for survivors in the lighthouses, but we could not find any lighthouse standing. The chances of finding anybody alive there were simply impossible,' said Sharma.

Seeing no sign of life, Sharma did not want to tarry as he had been tasked with covering the entire Nancowrie group. 'But something inside me told me to search,' he said.

Soon a landing party led by Lt Atla Mohan started in a boat towards West Bay. 'There were bodies heaped everywhere and several were sucked into the sea,' said Kishore Kumar, a sailor.

Failing to find any sign of life, the search party called out. 'Suddenly, in one of the corners of the creek, we found one person moving. He was waving a white cloth,' said Mohan.

Mathews had lived to tell the tale of the death of his wife and three children.

'Sir, we have one survivor here. All are dead,' the officer informed Sharma on board the ship.

On the shores, Mathews, a Nicobari, was given food and water. 'They (his family) were sucked into the sea and I could not do anything to save them. I managed to hold on to a tree trunk,' said Mathews, a schoolteacher.

As the stupefied search party heard in silence, he muttered on weakly: 'When the earth shook, we came out of our houses. As the entire West Bay is in the form of a creek, water was flowing in from all directions and we were in the middle of it.'

Soon water flooded the creek and pulled hundreds of people with it. 'I was holding on to my wife and children, but the waves were too strong. She slipped away along with my kids. God, I can still hear them scream for help.'

Once the water receded, Mathews started to scout for survivors. 'I looked for my family, hoping for a miracle. There was nobody alive in entire West Bay.'

He walked to the jetty, which was almost destroyed, hoping that a ship or a helicopter would come.

'The nights were terrible and the days were tough. I tied a white cloth and kept it on top of the creek, hoping that someone would see it. I had almost lost hope, but God has sent you,' Mathews told Sharma.

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