Cadets and forest guards recount the horrific details of the Malayatoor drowning tragedy.
“They were facing us as they were going down and we saw them drowning,” said Ananth Kumar standing erect with his heels together and his outstretched hands pointing at the direction where he saw the tragedy unfold on that fateful Wednesday.
The young NCC cadet was witness to five of his batch mates from the Delhi Directorate drowning in Periyar at Mahoganythottam in Mulamkuzhi near Malayattoor.
Standing under a scorching sun at the very same banks three days after the accident, he was recounting the tragedy when Director General of NCC Lieutenant General P.S. Bhalla came visiting the accident site.
Displaying the true grit of a cadet, he explained everything without a trace of emotion in front of the top ranked official of his organisation.
Most of the cadets were seated in the shade of the trees on the banks on that afternoon as they had only an hour-long lunch break between the trekking, Ananth Kumar said.
He did not know how the cadets who met with the tragedy slipped in to the danger area marked with a rope interspersed with red rags. Panic cries of drowning brought the rest of the cadets to the banks and they saw their fellow cadets going down in to the water facing them, he said.
After listening to him and clarifying some points, Lt. Gen Bhalla moved on to six other cadets from the same batch lined up a little further. Realising the kind of shock they would be under, the officer patted on their backs and shook hands with them.
He asked them whether they were okay and inquired about the status of their train reservations for their return trip back on Sunday.
Next he met with a forest guard who was on duty on the day the tragedy happened. One of the accompanying officials wanted to know how people managed to take a bath in the river despite the message board put up by the forest department along the way warning against it.
Lt. Gen Bhalla then met the two grey-haired security guards of Vana Samrakshana Samithi who fished out three out of the five bodies of the cadets. Their accounts of the incident were translated by an accompanying official.
Ayyappan described how he sped to the danger zone and jumped headlong in to the waters before he was joined by his colleague Achuthan.
“Initially, we were told that only one had fallen. When we came up with the first one they said another one was in the water and as we re-emerged they said there was one more. The three had some signs of life and people formed a chain to pass them to the vehicle,” he said. Lt. Gen Bhalla wanted to know whether they recovered the bodies from within the danger zone and the depth of the water there.
They responded that the bodies were indeed in the danger zone where the water-level could be anywhere between 10 to 12 feet.
In response to another query from the director general, Ayyappan said the bodies were found at a distance of two to three meters from each other and that the swirling water in the area could have been the reason for that.
In a token of appreciation for their good work, Lt. Gen Bhalla gave them each Rs. 1,000 and shook hands with them. He spent almost an hour at the spot before returning to the camp.
Brigadier M.K. Mukherjee, Deputy Director General, Training, Directorate General, NCC; Brigadier Subhash Dixit, Group Commander, NCC, Kolhapur; Colonel Biju Thomas and Lieutenant Colonels S. Ramesh and N. Nagaraj, all three members of the court of inquiry; G. Subramanian, Deputy Director General, Kerala and Lakshadweep NCC Directorate; Commodore T.P. Jaison Thomas, Group Commander NCC, Ernakulam; Commandant of the trekking camp Padmanabhan, and Deputy Commandant Madhusudhanan were also present.