The Coast Guard relies solely on the services of Chetak, the single-engine helicopter which has its limitations

The one thing I dread about cyclones or heavy rains in Chennai is falling trees. The fear took root in my heart ever since, a few years ago, I read about a couple travelling in a car being crushed to death under the weight of a gigantic tree that fell. Their teenage son, who sat on the backseat, watched his parents die. Death can’t be anymore cruel.

My fear grew the size of a tree ever since I nearly met a similar end: it was on the night of November 26, 2008, when Mumbai came under terror attack. But I was oblivious of the attack when I took the office car home that rainy night (the news from Mumbai was still sketchy and many believed that a gang war had broken out). As soon as the car turned right from Thyagaraya Road towards G.N. Chetty Road, a tree on the connecting street came crashing on us. We — the driver and I — saw the tree beginning to topple with a creaking sound, but we were too close by then. What a way to die: my home was barely 100 metres away!

Fortunately, the massive trunk landed a couple of feet ahead of the car. The windshield was smashed and we were in the grip of countless branches — water dripping from the leaves. I now feared being electrocuted, in case the fallen tree had a live wired trapped in its tentacles. Suddenly, the branches were cleared by people who appeared out of nowhere: they turned out be poor people living in the crevices of the street. I stepped out, alive.

Nearly 60 large trees fell across Chennai when Cyclone Nilam hit the coastline last week, but quite miraculously, no deaths were reported — either due to falling trees or other cyclone-created causes. All was well. Until it was discovered that half a dozen crew members of a merchant vessel, which had inexplicably drifted to Elliot’s Beach the day Nilam was crossing the coast, had drowned while trying to reach the shore in lifeboats. Seventeen other crew members were rescued by fishermen. Those who remained in the ship were airlifted by Coast Guard choppers the next morning.

How strange it is, that while those on land remained safe, occupants of a ship, supposed to a safe place during a storm, ended up losing their lives in a bid to reach the shore. Why did the captain panic so much that he ordered lifeboats to be lowered even when the sea was rough?

The question remains unanswered even today.

But why did the Coast Guard not airlift the crew even though the ship had run aground before the cyclone closed in on Chennai — and why did it send out choppers only the next morning? The answer is simple: the Coast Guard relies solely on the services of Chetak, the single-engine helicopter which has its limitations. Unlike twin-engine choppers like the Sea King, the Chetak is not supposed to fly over sea at night; moreover, it can be risky for a single-engine chopper to hover during gusty conditions.

In fact, India’s Coast Guard is the only one in the world today to rely on single-engine helicopters for rescue operations. The French Coast Guard is the only other exception, but their helicopters are equipped with floatation gear. Which is why when the cyclone closed in, it was the fishermen who played Coast Guard and saved 17 lives.

The Coast Guard rescues people too — that too in a spectacular fashion — but on pleasant, sunny mornings when they take journalists out to the seas to demonstrate their skills.

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