Operation Palakkad: Did Kerala's highly feted firemen let down trekker trapped in a mountain crack


After the Indian Army's quick and efficient rescue of 23-year-old trekker R Babu from a narrow mountain slit in Palakkad, Kerala's firemen were the most ridiculed and condemned lot.

The impression that gained ground was that the Fire and Rescue personnel looked on as mere spectators when they had the expertise and equipment to do the job. The Fire and Rescue director general, B Sandhya IPS, even issued a show cause notice to the Palakkad district fire officer (DFO) on February 13. The notice deals mainly with the DFO's failure to promptly communicate with the headquarters than with any response breakdown.

Babu, given water by the Indian Army personnel. Photo: Manorama/Sooraj P Nath

Under the rock's belly
It was widely said that the Fire and Rescue people could have at least reached the stranded youth some bottles of food and water. “Forget rescuing his life, these people could have at least tied food and water on a rope and lowered it down to where Babu was stuck,” a social media comment that was shared widely said.

V K Rtheej, the Palakkad district fire officer (DFO) and the man who is now under fire, said that his men had indeed attempted to do so. “We tried but it did not work out,” he told Onmanorama. “You cannot see Babu if you look down from the top. The side of the mountain was not bluntly steep. A big rock bulge, like a pregnant woman's belly, blocked our view. Babu was under this bulge,” Rtheej said.

When the firemen started lowering the rope with the water and food, they quickly realised the futility of the attempt. “When these items reach Babu's level some 400 metres below they would be dangling at least 10 feet away from him because of the rock bulge. We knew this would be dangerous as even a slight forward thrust could cause him to fall,” Rtheej said.

Babu being brought to the top of Kurumbachi hill by the rescue team. Photo: Manorama/Sooraj P Nath

Fireman's adventurous streak
The Palakkad DFO said many of the firemen called to the spot were ready to risk their lives to rappel down the mountain face, just like the Army men did, and carry Babu back. (Rappelling is a process by which highly trained men descend a rock face or other vertical surfaces using a rope coiled around the body and fixed at a higher point.)

“Their spirit and commitment were commendable but I wanted to know the enormity of the rescue missions they were part of before. The deepest any of them had jumped as part of rescue missions was not more than 40 metres. We were then staring at 400 metres. This was no time for bold experiments. A life was at stake,” Rtheej said.

Rope trick
What's more, they did not have the necessary equipment to carry out the operation. “It is true that some of our men are seriously good with rope work. But to save a person stuck deep in the middle of a steep mountain we required ropes 1000 metres long. Even the police, which has a specialised high altitude rescue team, did not have such ropes. Their men, too, couldn't do much,” Rtheej said.

A top Fire and Rescue officer told Onmanorama that Kerala's firemen had successfully undertaken some high-risk operations. “The firemen in Palakkad district itself had a few years ago descended nearly 400 metres to retrieve a body,” he said. Nonetheless, he conceded that it was not comparable to the Kurumbachi hill mission.

“The earlier mission, of course, was easier as every 20 or 30 metres there was a landing spot. Moreover, there was no one to be saved like in Palakkad. It was a dead body they were attempting to lift,” the officer said.

Graphic representation of how Babu fell from the hill.

Distress call from a ditch
To begin with, Rtheej said the district fire unit had no inkling of the gravity of the situation. “When Babu called us at around 2pm (on February 7), he said he had fallen in a ditch ('chaal') near the mountain,” Rtheej said. "Our men had actually set out to pick a man who had fallen in a ditch, an easy routine mission," he said.

There were many hills in the area and no one reported hearing of anyone who had fallen in a ditch. Babu could not be contacted as he was always 'out of range'. It was only later the firemen were informed that Babu was stuck in the Kurumbachi hill, nearly two kilometres inside the forest.

The firemen took the help of a forest watcher and detected the mountain. “Babu let our men know where he was by waving his shirt,” Rtheej said. By evening the Palakkad fire and rescue team had reached the top of the hill, and it was only then they could contact Rtheej at the district headquarters. “Till they called from the forest in the evening, we were not bothered as it was usual to lose contact with our men during even routine operations,” Rtheej said.

The DFO then contacted the Forest Department. By around midnight a forest team, too, reached the top of the hill.

Mountain-sized conundrum
The next day, February 8, Rtheej said attempts were made to reach Babu by any means possible. “Climbing the rock face was ruled out as Babu was trapped 600 metres above. Attempts to reach him horizontally, from the sides, were also tried and abandoned. We found that we could not reach anywhere around the 300 metre radius of Babu's position,” Rtheej said.

Kerala youth trapped in Palakkad hill cleft
Drone visual of R Babu, a 23-year-old from Cheradu, Malampuzha, who had slipped and fell into a hill cleft in Palakkad's Malampuzha.

The only way out was to drop down from above and lift Babu up; the NDRF, the Coast Guard and later the army, too, came to the same conclusion. “This was a crisis we had never ever encountered and we knew what had to be done. But this was not the time to test our skills and risk the lives of both Babu and our men,” Rtheej said.

On February 8 morning itself, a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team was called in from Thrissur. They had the ropes and the necessary equipment. “We had also by then identified the easiest route for the NDRF team to drop down,” Rtheej said.

Wind power
The NDRF tried hard but somehow could not make things happen. A top Revenue Department official said that the district collector, worried that the uncertainty was mounting, asked the NDRF whether they could pull off the task. “It was then that the Coast Guard was brought in,” the official said.

Babu's mother Rasheeda welcomes him home after being discharged from hospital. Photo: Manorama

All the videos and pictures taken of the site were shared with the Coast Guard. “We had also informed them that it would be difficult to land the copter on the hill top,” the revenue official said. “But the Coast Guard was confident of the mission but the wind played spoilsport. The wind was so bad that it was feared that the copter could be dragged and dashed on the rocky mountain face. Their mission was aborted,” the official said.

The wind was a major hassle as even the heavy drones that could carry weights of up to 10 kg could not be used to take food for the army men on top of the hill. The food and water was then taken to the hilltop on foot by the firemen. Because of the swirling mountain wind, none of the available drones, some of them state-of-the-art and most of them owned by private parties, could be flown at a certain height to even communicate with and get a closer view of Babu.

Did rope rescuers arrive late?
Even before Coast Guard's Chetak helicopter arrived, some private mountaineering groups had also congregated at the base of the Kurumbachi hills, willing to undertake the rescue mission. After assessing the conditions, most of them said they were unfit for the task.

Kerala youth trapped in Palakkad hill cleft for over 24 hours; rescue mission on
Selfies and photographs sent by R Babu using his mobilephone while he was stuck at the hill cleft. Photo: Manorama News

The Fire and Rescue Department had also summoned its rope rescue specialists. "But they are not stationed as a team but are individuals posted in separate Fire and Rescue units in various districts. It would have taken time for the team to mobilise and come together," Rtheej said.

A top source in the Fire and Rescue Department said that the rope rescuers could have been summoned earlier had the DFO been prompt in his communications.

For the district administration, time was not a luxury and the army was called in.

Special commando force
Had Babu fallen into the crevice a year later, perhaps there would have been no need to call the army. Before COVID struck, a plan to create a special commando rescue team was set in motion. "30-40 of our best men were to be given intense and sustained training in high-altitude and underwater rescue missions. I hope the work is in progress," a former Fire and Rescue director general told Onmanorama.

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