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Wednesday , September 21 , 2011
 
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Giant razors roll and shave
- Rumble below, rockets above

Sept. 20: Vinod Marandi gingerly lifted his head and peered out of the IAF Mi-17 chopper window at the lofty mountains encircling him. His left leg lay battered in the stretcher, victim to the barrage of boulders unleashed by Sunday’s quake.

The mountains looked majestic and serene to Marandi. But the rain of boulders a fearsome burst from up above that followed the ferocious growl from deep below on Sunday evening -- had left their mark, cutting a swathe through the lush greenery, leaving it stripped bare and crushing several lives.

“It seems as though someone has shaved a section of the mountain with a razor from the top to the bottom,” said a member of the IAF rescue team, capturing through an everyday description the intensity of the power nature had unleashed, seemingly with the same ease that the removal of facial hair requires.

“The trees and greenery have been wiped off the face of the mountain, bringing the rock and soil to the surface,” the team member added, the sight unfolding before him and the impact sinking in.

Several denuded patches could be spotted dotting the mountains as the chopper flew past, carrying Marandi and his injured colleagues to safety. The Mi-17 had set out from the Bagdogra IAF base at 8.45am for remote Thung in North Sikkim with food packets, medicines and other relief materials.

“It’s tough to forget that evening when we faced Nature’s fury,” said Marandi, one of four construction workers and two Sikkim police personnel who had come on board. The workers, from Jharkhand’s Ramgarh, had been working on a project near Chungthang in North Sikkim.

“The hills were trembling and the houses were shaking like toys. I ran for my life but I slipped and fell when a boulder hit my leg. Later, my colleagues rescued me,” Marandi said.

The foursome had been relaxing after work inside their makeshift concrete-and-tin shed in the mountains when the quake struck on Sunday evening. Within minutes, rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes had begun their deadly roll of devastation.

A huge boulder crushed the tin roof their shed, sending the workers scampering outside. “We somehow ran out because everything was shaking violently,” said Asheswar Munda, one of Marandi’s colleagues who was hurt in the scramble.

“Rocks, pebbles, stones and debris were chasing us down from all sides. We had no clue where to hide or how to escape Nature’s wrath. We simply prayed to God to save us.”

Charan Munda, also injured, echoed Asheswar. “It was horrifying. As we ran out, the ground was still shaking. On top of that, rocks and stones of all sizes were rolling down towards us from the mountaintops.

“We could not shelter behind walls for fear they would collapse. The stones just kept coming at us even after the tremors ended.”

The last member of the quartet who was lucky to escape unhurt painted an equally scary picture. “Imagine that you are standing in the darkness and rocks are hurtling down with a deafening rumble, hitting houses, people, everything in their way. It was a nightmare,” he said.

This morning, when the copter began dropping food packets, the people of Thung had been restrained. Not a single person had run to grab the packets as the chopper hovered over their heads. A while later, a few people had carried Marandi out in a stretcher, prompting the pilot to touch down.

“We had no option but to draw the attention of the IAF crew so they could take the injured away for treatment,” said policeman Mahesh Dungel, who was unhurt. His colleague Man Bahadur Gurung, however, broke his jaw.

An IAF official said the force had been engaged in relief work since Monday morning. “We have engaged two C-330 and two IL-76 aircraft, two An-32s and one Avro aircraft to bring in relief material and doctors,” he said. “From Bagdogra, four Mi-17 and four Cheetah helicopters have been pressed into service.”

The boulders accounted for the largest casualties reported so far from a single incident. Nine employees of company working on a Teesta hydel project were crushed to death at Salim Payel, 20km from Mangan, when the stones fell on their vehicle. A 63-year-old assistant general manager, D. Gupta, on the project was also killed in a separate incident.

The beehive of craters caused by the landslides has mounted hurdles before the army and the national disaster response force (NDRF) that are making stuttered progress towards the marooned Chungthang in North Sikkim, some 100km away from Gangtok.

Of the 53 deaths confirmed in Sikkim till this evening, as many as 40 have occurred in North Sikkim alone. Most of the casualties were traced to areas in and around Chungthang subdivision, where road links were not restored till late this evening.

Six hundred personnel the Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) Project Swastik are trying to clear the 30 major and minor slides along the 18-km stretch between Meyong and Chungthang. Meyong, 8km from Mangan, was the last accessible point for road traffic this afternoon.

Closely following the BRO task force are a dozen army trucks filled with plastic water tanks and other relief material and five buses carrying NDRF team from New Delhi. Sikkim’s sole lifeline -- NH 31A was cleared yesterday afternoon and Mangan, the North district headquarters, was made accessible this morning.

“The road towards Chungthang is blocked here by boulders which have slipped from the hill side. We are targeting to clear this hurdle in a couple of hours,” Project Swastik director K.P. Purushottaman said at Meyong in the afternoon.

The toughest hurdle awaiting the task force is at Theeng on the way to Chungthang, where some 200 metres of road had been completely swept off. “There is basically no road at that point. We have to cut inside the hill to make a path for allowing traffic movement,” Purushottaman added.

“Roads to other parts of the district through Mangan is closed. Dzongu and Chunthang, the largest populated areas in the district, are also cut off. The army and district officials are reaching these areas on foot,” said North district collector S.K. Pradhan. Dzongu is a protected area of Lepchas, the indigenous tribal community of Sikkim.

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