Munnar, Idukki: The death toll in the massive landslide that destroyed a row of houses of tea estate workers at Pettimudi near Rajamala in Kerala's Idukki district rose to 43 on Sunday with 17 more bodies being retrieved from the debris.
According to the government, 78 people were staying at the spot where the tragedy occurred. While 12 were rescued, the search is on to find the rest.
Three days after the settlements were swept away by devastating landslides at Pettimudi near Rajamala, authorities have now decided to take help of sniffer dogs to trace the persons buried under the debris.
Austerity marked even the final rites of the people who had lived a life of struggle with limited resources in a row of small housing units near tea plantations. The 26 bodies recovered on Saturday were buried in three pits at a ground near the Rajamala Hospital after their postmortem was completed.
The eight people whose bodies were found on Saturday were identified as Vijila (47), Kuttiraj (48), Pawan Thai (52), Shanmukha Ayyan (58), Manikandan (20), Deepak (18), Prabha (55) and Bharathi Raja (35).
One of the dead on Friday was identified on Saturday as Saroja, 58.
Ministers M M Mani and E Chandrasekaran are camping in the area to oversee the search operations.
Kannan Devan Hill Plantations Company has announced financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the deceased.
There were 78 people in the five rows housing units that were destroyed in the landslide that occurred early on Friday morning. All were from Tamil Nadu. Twelve people were rescued in the initial search operations.
19 students went missing
Nineteen school children went missing in the Pettimudi landslide tragedy on Friday morning. These children, who lived in four rows of small homes meant for tea plantation workers, were students of various schools in the Munnar region. The bodies of two of them have been recovered.
The students who had gone missing were: S Lavanya, Hema, R Vidya, Vinodini, Janani, Rajalakshmi, Priyadarshini (Little Flower High School, Munnar), Jagadeeshwari (Govt High School, Munnar), Vishal (St Mary's UPS, Marayoor), Lakshyasree, Ashwanth Raj (Carmelagiri Public School, Korandakkad), Lakshnashree, Vijayalakshmi, Vishnu (ALPS, Rajamala), Joshua, Sanjay, Sindhuja, Gausika, and Shivaranjini (Fathima Matha High School, Chinnakanal).
The bodies of Sindhuja and Sanjay have been recovered.
Victims buried together
The 26 people whose bodies were recovered after the landslide at Pettimudi were buried in Rajamala itself.
After conducting the postmortem at the Rajamala Estate Hospital, the bodies were taken in batches of five each to a ground about a kilometre away and buried together in three pits 15 metres long and 6 feet deep.
The last rites were held without public mourning or rituals, except for the tears of relatives.
There are 39 more people still missing after the landslide.
Some say that the remains of the dwelling units that were washed away by the landslide were found in the Perumbankuthu river in Mankulam. According to locals, the bodies of many of the victims may have been taken away by the Pettimudi river.
The search operations were being carried out by carefully removing slush, mud and stones with bulldozers.
Kuttiraja and his wife Vijila were the first to be found on Saturday. The bodies of the couple, who were sleeping in the same bed, were found 10 feet apart. The body of their son Manikandan was found a little later. Their other son Deepak was also found dead.
The eighth body on Saturday was found late in the evening when the search operations were about to be called off.
Many relatives of the victims arrived from Tamil Nadu, resulting in large crowds in Pettimudi. Many came to Kerala on a two-day pass.
Rescue workers risking life
"It is raining continuously with raindrops that seem like threads. Sometimes, the fog is so heavy that you cannot see the person standing next to you," said a rescue worker at Pettimudi. "Occasionally, there are small noises from Anamudi, which make you to look up at the hill in fear, to ensure that there are no signs of another landslide."
Rescue workers are putting their lives at risk while looking for those who were trapped in the landslide in Pettimudi on Friday morning.
It's been more than 48 hours since a 200-member rescue team, including the fire brigade, the police and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), began the search operations. Activists of political and voluntary organisations have also joined them.
There was a landslide on Saturday morning, too, as it continued to rain on Friday night. Rainwater flowing like flood also posed a challenge to the rescue workers, who had to work in slush that was knee-deep in some places.
The dwelling units of the tea plantation workers who got buried in the landslide were at the edge of a three-acre area filled with stones and mud.
The search was carried out using seven bulldozers. Trees had to be cut in marshland areas to make way for bulldozers to help with the search for bodies.
The location of houses destroyed by the landslide was determined with the help of locals to find those trapped.
The search operations could not continue overnight as power was not restored in the area.
Even though the National Disaster Response Force and the fire brigade took over the search and rescue work from the locals on Friday morning itself, the operations have been hampered by inclement weather, delaying the retrieval of bodies.
Locals put all their might
"Murukesha, make tea." Anandan, a native of Pettimudi, has for many years started his day with tea from Murukesha's canteen. But, on Friday morning, when he came for his daily cup, all that he saw were debris and rocks in the area where the canteen once stood.
A landslide early in the day had destroyed the canteen and a few rows of housing units meant for tea plantation workers in Pettimudi, trapping 78 residents. Anandan screamed.
By then, people from nearby places had reached the spot.
All of them stood there motionless for a few moments, not knowing what to do. As they gathered their wits, they started looking for their acquaintances and loved ones among the rocks and slush caused by incessant rains.
That is how the rescue operations started after the landslide.
Plantation workers from four smaller rows of houses near the five rows that perished in the disaster were the first to reach for rescue work. They were then joined by jeep drivers from Idamalakkudi doing rounds to see if roads had been damaged after they heard the loud rumblings and creaks typical of landslides on Thursday night.
They began searching for people with whatever instruments and equipment they could find.
Some locals walked 14 km to inform forest department officials in Rajamalai about the tragedy. By the time the officials arrived, the locals had rescued six people who were found half-covered in mud and debris. They also found three bodies.
Soon, about 20 people from the tribal areas of Idamalakkudi reached the spot in jeeps and by running through the forests.
Later, the first fire brigade service arrived from Marayoor.
However, other vehicles could reach the spot as roads were damaged. It took an hour more for an ambulance to reach Pettimudi after the roads were cleared of stones, slush and fallen trees.
In the absence of sufficient spades, locals started clearing the mud and slush using pots and other vessels to look for buried people. They paved a path using aluminium sheets and tins.
Some stones were so huge that even 10 people could not move them. The locals would then lower a bamboo stalk into the mud, remove it and look at the tip to see if there was any sign of blood.
The locals did all they could, but they were helpless amid the rubbles and debris caused by nature’s fury.
It took another 20 hours for a team of experts to join the search. By then, any signs of life had faded away.