Large boulders, sludge, and corpses: NDRF Commandant Rekha Nambiar speaks of Pettimudi ops

Large boulders, sludge, and corpses: NDRF Commandant Rekha Nambiar speaks of Pettimudi ops
National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) Commandant Rekha Nambiar during rescue operation

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) Commandant Rekha Nambiar is always in the thick of action. Now, she and her team are working tirelessly to rescue those trapped under the debris following the Pettimudi landslip of August 7.

“We have found 52 bodies. At least 19 more are trapped underneath. We are hopeful of recovering all of them. Heavy rain can impede the rescue. If we do not recover the bodies in two days, they start decaying under the soil. This will make our task even more difficult,” she said even as the pneumatic arms of earthmovers moved ceaselessly and the personnel looked around for any signs of life.

The NDRF has been tasked with search and rescue in Pettimudi, near Munnar, this time. This is the third consecutive year that Kerala is witnessing heavy rain and landslips.

For the Commandant, it is important to coordinate the rescue efforts and keep up the morale of the team in the midst of all the sorrow and grief. The team has the arduous task of retrieving bodies as the relatives eagerly await any news of their loved ones. Commandant Rekha Nambiar feels it is not death that is more devastating for them but not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Commandant Rekha Nambiar, now with the 4th battalion based in Arakkonam, Tamil Nadu, is the first woman officer to head a field team. She took up the Commandant’s role in 2015. Here is what she has to say:

She said the people of Pettimudi awaited with bated breaths to know of what happened to their kin. Heavy rain and bone-chilling cold impeded the rescue efforts. There was heavy water-logging at the place too. The visibility was down to 20-25 ft. The team had to first remove the water before starting to remove the loose earth. Else, the corpse would not be visible. It was a repetitive process – water had to be removed and earth moved multiple times over.

She said the soil was soggy even after all water was removed. There was mud all around. The work had to be suspended in between. Huge boulders had landed at the site. Most of these rocks were 10-15 ft long. “We had to remove earth from around the rocks before removing these. Corpses were from under these rocks too,” she said.

Gone in one night

The disaster in Pettimudi could be due to heavy rain. She said deforestation could have accentuated it. Last year, the disaster struck Malappuram, this time it is Idukki. It could be some other place next time. Many hill stations in the country were facing similar issues. However, one specific reason cannot be assigned as the causes could be many – like excessive construction, rainfall, deforestation, etc.

From Kavalappara to Pettimudi

The Kavalappara landslip of August 2019 is still vivid in our memory. It culled 59 lives. The Pettimudi disaster comes just one year after Kavalappara.

Commandant Rekha Nambiar had headed the NDRF team in Kavalappara too. She said the Kavalappara site was three times larger than the Pettimudi one. But rescuers faced the hurdles of rain and faced in Pettimudi were heavy rain and low temperatures.

She said it was difficult to carry out the operation at 12-15 degrees Celsius.

First mission in Chennai

The Commandant said she came to the NDRF on deputation in 2015. She had to deal with the floods in the city that year. “We know of the intensity of a disaster only when we come face-to-face with it,” she says.

She remembers how many people were stranded. She got calls from hospitals saying critical facilities like ventilators were shut due to power failure. Patients were waiting for dialysis and so on. The city was one large pool of sorrow, she said.

From CISF to NDRF

Commandant Rekha Nambiar’s father is from Vadakara and mother from Palakkad. She completed her education in Chennai and Delhi. After her post-graduation in English, she cleared the UPSC examination and got selected to the CISF. In the force, she was the chief security officer in charge of the Chennai airport.

The Commandant said she always liked adventure, adding her father had been her inspiration to join the NDRF. It is he who taught her that life is not in the ‘safe zone’ and one should take up challenges.

She says being a woman has never been a stumbling block for her. She says she is completely satisfied with her work and vouches for success if one worked hard.

She says anyone with a will to work hard can join the NDRF. She says every operation that the force undertakes has its challenges.

So, what is the advice that she gives to her colleagues and teammates? “You should completely empathise with the victims and understand their plight. If you do not understand their issues, there could be a delay in helping them out. If you don’t understand their pain, you do not put in your 100 per cent,” she says.