The mine tragedy at Ksan in East Jaintia Hills brought together the best of disaster management experts who worked relentlessly and in tandem to rescue the trapped miners or recover their bodies. Despite the constant pressure to perform and criticisms, the rescuers worked with alacrity and did their best at that critical moment. Among the organisations which came to help the Meghalaya disaster response force was a 21-member team from Odisha Fire Service, one of the best in the country.
The Odisha Fire Service had lent their support to the disaster teams of several states, the recent being Kerala during last year’s flood. The elite team reached Ksan on December 28 and left on February 6. For over a month, the team put in their best efforts, both in terms of manpower and equipment.
The recovery operations are still on at Ksan. Maybe after a few months, or weeks, the tragedy will fade from people’s memory. But for those who had to go through the rigmarole of the rescue/recovery operations and those who witnessed the magnitude of the disaster, it would not be easy to forget the trauma.
It was a daunting task but a learning experience, Sukanta Sethi, the chief fire officer in the Odisha team, summarises. In a tête-à-tête with Sunday Shillong, Sethi and his deputy, Satyapir Behera, talk about the challenges, the anxiety, beauty of the place, the experience and lessons learnt. The recollection:
Chief Fire Officer,
Odisha Fire Service
On December 27, we came to know from the (Odisha) government that we had to go to Meghalaya. When I heard about the tragedy, I did not even imagine what challenge was awaiting us. You see, most of the mines in Odisha are open-cast and so I thought it would be a similar situation. I anticipated that our work would be over within a few days. I did not expect that so many miners were trapped inside a pit that was over 370-foot deep.
We reached Khliehriat the next day around 1.30am. It was terribly cold and beyond our tolerance level. We stayed in a school building and the doors were open. It was really difficult at night but the next morning we told the district administration and it put our team up in a guest house.
In Odisha, we had been working at 15°C and suddenly we came to zero degree. So you can imagine our condition. I was only carrying a shawl and no blanket and the markets were closed. I requested the deputy commissioner to give me a car so that I could go to some market and buy a blanket. Later, the guest house made all arrangements for us.
However, I must add that as disaster management workers we are always ready for the worst so after the initial jolt, we got ourselves accustomed to the weather condition.
Work started on December 31. We were carrying 10 pumps to dewater the flooded mine. We were told that water needed to be pumped out so that navy divers could go inside. When we reached the site and I studied the whole situation, I knew it would be a difficult task. We had discussions with the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) and the navy. It was a ritual. Everyday before starting work, we would discuss how to go about the operations and likewise work in a concerted way.
We worked with so many teams, especially with NDRF and its state counterpart. But we never had any misunderstanding as our work was systematic.
There were many challenges, the first being the cold. Also, our pumps could only go till 7 ft because those are for fire-fighting. All through our stay (at Ksan), we got assistance from the government and the district administration. Locals too were cooperative. Once we needed tents as the pumps were to run overnight. It was raining. But we got help. The place was remote and the market was at a distance so some delay was expected. It was natural and we adjusted.
We had to reach the base camp at 8.30am. From there, all of us would go to the actual site. Accessibility and communication were other major challenges. The place is really remote. We would work till 6.30-7pm.
We had our breakfast and dinner at the guest house. For lunch, we would cook at the site. Two from the team would be tasked with the job of cooking. The responsibility would be rotational. We procured vegetables, oil and spices from the local market. We were allotted a vehicle for that. Vegetables were costly but the district administration helped us. It supplied eggs and rice. But we needed to buy spices by ourselves as you know people from Odisha take more spices (laughs). We asked our co-workers to taste our food and they liked it.
The Odisha government had given us ration allowance of Rs 400 a day. We thought our stay would be for a few days and we were unprepared for the long stay.
I came back on January 7 and handed over charges to my deputy (Satyapir Behera) and assistant. Later, 20 per cent of our team members were replaced. The Meghalaya government provided flight tickets. However, the second team went by train.
It was my first time in Meghalaya. It was also a first of its kind challenge. Even our state is rich in minerals and there are several mines. We often get cases of fire at coal mines but this one (at Ksan) was a different kind of a case. I had little idea that a pit can run so deep.
But as I said earlier, it was a learning experience. Now, Odisha Fire Service is planning to introduce training (modules) for rescue operations in coal mines. We have already prepared our modules and some selected officials have been engaged. In fact, we have already sent our men to Talcher and Jhadsuguda (mining areas in Odisha) for training. We are also planning a training module for deep pit rescue. Our divers could not go beyond 30 ft and every time what bothered me was how to communicate with them. So for that we will procure special equipment. We will also train our men in deep diving for critical situations such as the Ksan case. We will procure 40 powerful pumps too.
Another important lesson that we learnt from our experience at Ksan was how to handle the media. We should have a designated person to speak to the media and not everyone should talk. For that too we have created a module.
See, Odisha Fire Service is among the best in India. Our manpower is 5,000-strong. We have the highest number of vehicles and other equipment. In 1999, when Odisha was reeling from the onslaught of a cyclone, rescuers from Andhra Pradesh had come and we learnt a lot from them and made ourselves capable enough to handle critical situations. Similarly, Ksan taught us many things and is helping us to better ourselves.
At the end, I would like to mention that Meghalaya is a beautiful place. Jaintia Hills is a beautiful place. The state has an abundance of natural resources and it should be preserved. It gets rain for eight months and still there is water scarcity. People should be made aware of the importance of preserving nature. Or one day it will all be gone.
Deputy Fire Officer
Our divers could only go till 30 ft. And the water was very cold. I did not understand how they could get into the water. It was difficult. We experienced the difficulties and learnt how we can adopt and work. We learnt how to coordinate with so many departments in a situation like the one at Ksan.
We came so far for the rescue operation. There were so many bodies inside the pit. When I went to the site and looked into the mine, I felt… I don’t know, disgusted… I kept on thinking that there were so many bodies inside and we were on the ground.
Locals were definitely helpful. They took care of our food and other needs. Other teams like those of the NDRF and navy were also helping us in many ways. It was an experience to remember for the rest of my life.
We also bonded with other teams over food. They liked our cooking and we too tasted local food.
We learnt so much from this assignment and this will help us prepare for critical situations in future.
(As told to Nabamita Mitra)
Photos: Odisha Fire Service