Many climbed nearby hills, stayed there for more than two days without food or water

On a day when estimates of the death toll in the calamity that has hit Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh varied widely, with figures ranging from hundreds to thousands, the only certainty was that it was mayhem beyond description. One officer said the figures could be “shockingly huge.”

Ram Aron, a trustee of the Shri Shri Vidhya Dham Guptkashi from Indore, for instance, said he saw hundreds of bodies being carried by fast currents in Gaurikund on June 17.

Striking a relatively cautious note, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna on Thursday said the casualties must run into hundreds.

Some estimates, however, put the number of missing or dead at 5,000. But it was clear that there was no knowing until the mud cleared.

Anything close to the real figure may come out only after the debris in Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Rambada and along the trekking route are removed and bodies recovered, said one police officer. Foul smell pervaded different areas as a large number of bodies were decaying.

Lodging facilities in the area continued to be packed: the tragedy hit during the peak of the Char Dham Yatra season.

Describing the calamity as unprecedented, Mr. Bahuguna said: “The tragedy is huge and the damage tremendous. Vast tracts are buried under tonnes of debris.”

Principal Secretary Rakesh Sharma said 11,000 people stranded along the Gangotri and Yamunotri routes in Uttarkashi district were evacuated by air and road. “Our focus now is to vacate the Kedarnath valley where 250 people are stranded. Once we are through with this, we will move on to Badrinath, where 9,000 people are stuck,” he said.

Mr. Sharma hesitated to hazard a guess on the toll and said it was difficult to arrive at numbers. But the figures could be “shockingly huge,” he said.

It would take at least a year to restore the Kedarnath shrine to its former self: the destruction was total. The sanctum sanctorum and the temple structure were, however, safe, Mr. Sharma said.

According to official sources, there were about 25,000 pilgrims in Kedarnath, Rambada, Gaurikund, Sonprayag and Rampur when tragedy struck. Also, there were hundreds of mules, their runners, and pilgrims riding the mules. Many of them have vanished.

“It was horrible. I saved myself somehow, but the horrible scenes have left me sad,” Mr. Aron, who was himself rescued by an Indian Air Force helicopter, told The Hindu on Thursday. He and several others had saved themselves by climbing nearby hills and staying put there for more than two days, without food or water.

“There were hundreds of pilgrims, taxi drivers, hotel or dharamshala staff members in Gaurikund. Many of them seem to have been either carried by the currents or buried in over 10 feet of debris,” said Rama Singh of Patiala, who somehow managed to save herself and her two sons.

But all were not as lucky. Rama Singh Ishwar from Jabalpur lost his wife and two children.

Balbir from Gwalior recalled how huge amounts of water gushed into the Kedarnath shrine area, carrying thundering boulders. “Many of us saved ourselves by running into the temple… only God saved us as everything around the temple was destroyed,” he said.

Mr. Balbir was all praise for the IAF pilots who first airlifted him to Fata and then to Dehra Dun.

Several women pilgrims from Rajasthan could be seen raising their voice at the authorities at the Dehra Dun helipad, having been denied food, shelter or medicines for three days. “We’ll never come back to Uttarakhand, where the government takes no care of even disaster-hit victims,” one of them said.

Dinesh Bagwadi, a purohit at Kedarnath temple, is a broken man. He lost five members of his family including a young son, all in a span of 15 minutes. “The danger of heavy rain and flood was looming large since the morning of June 17. I was getting the temple premises cleaned when all hell broke loose around 8 a.m. and huge amounts of water, boulders and debris hit. Those who came running into the temple were saved; others perished. The entire campus was strewn with bodies being carried by the currents,” he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of pilgrims are stuck in Gangotri, Yamunotri and Uttarkashi. Food supply arrangements seem to be inadequate. The demand seems to be more than what the authorities are supplying.

Shaila Rani Rawat, MLA from Kedarnath, wanted the government to rush rations and medicines to those far-flung villages where the residents had lost everything. “The government seems most unprepared to tackle calamities that are a frequent phenomenon in Uttarakhand,” she said.

Former Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank who returned after a three- day tour of Fata, Augustmuni, Rambada, Kedarnath, Uttarkashi, Guptkashi and Rudraprayag, said the survivors were in a pathetic situation. People were not able to communicate with families back home as mobile towers had stopped working for want of diesel. Putting the figure of stranded persons at over 50,000 in these areas, he said people were starving: no food had been sent. The sick were suffering for want of doctors or medicines.

“The entire area smells of decaying bodies, and the starving people are crying for help,” Mr. Nishank said. He wanted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to order the setting up of information centres equipped with satellite phones so that stranded victims could contact their families.

Avdhash Kaushal, chairperson of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, accused the Disaster Mitigation and Management Authority and the district authorities who had kept making tall claims of being ready to meet any eventuality. “The gross negligence and half-hearted efforts at disaster mitigation is criminal. It would be better if the government handed over disaster management to a private corporate body rather than depend on babus enjoying air-conditioned cabins and cars,” he said.

Rajendra Dobhal, Director General of the Uttarakhand State Council for Science and Technology, said the authorities should introduce a system of electronic tagging for all pilgrims. “This will at least give us the number of pilgrims present at any given time, and their personal details including addresses and contact numbers in case of an emergency.”

Pilgrims should not be allowed to assemble in large numbers in or around shrines and should be asked to camp in a dispersed manner, Dr. Dobhal said.

He felt that the only way to make roads safe was to build bridges at all vulnerable points. He wanted road building agencies to adopt safer hill-cutting techniques while repairing or making new roads so as not to destabilise the fragile Himalayas.

On the flooding in Uttarkashi, Dr. Dobhal said the hydel projects between Gangotri and Uttarkashi that were stalled at the instance of so-called environmentalists should be completed immediately to prevent flash floods. The dams would also help produce electricity.