Theni forest fire: a trek that ended in tragedy

Survivor recalls miraculous escape while others perished

Indian Air Force helicopter engaging in rescue operation after the forest fire at the Kurangani hill in Theni district on Monday.   | Photo Credit: S. Krishnamoorthy

D. Monisha, 30, from Chennai, who identified herself as a working professional, had been on a few trekking expeditions, but she is not sure if she will do it any more.

One of the 10 trekkers, including three children, who miraculously escaped with minor injuries from the wildfire, she narrated her ordeal to The Hindu.

According to her, around 35 people, which comprised members of two different trekking groups — one that had come from Chennai and another from Erode — were at the same spot on their way down the hill on Sunday afternoon when they spotted white smoke emanating from below.

“Our group from Chennai started the trek from Kurangani on Saturday morning and were about to trek back the same route. However, we took a slight detour from the normal trek route to reach faster as suggested by our local guide,” she said.

She said that D. Vibin from Coimbatore and R. Arun Prabhakaran from Chennai acted as guides for the Chennai team along with Ranjith, a local guide.

“Soon the white smoke turned black and that is when Ranjith alerted us that the wildfire was reaching our spot fast,” she said.

Though she and few others moved swiftly uphill with the plan of climbing down from the other side, as suggested by the guides, many others could not act immediately since they had just finished lunch and had to wear their shoes, take their belongings and leave. “I think those few minutes of delay mattered a lot,” she said.

“We could not climb beyond a point as we were exhausted and the fire was so close. So, I did not know why or how I did it. But I started crawling and rolling over sideways, in a bid to move to the other side of the hill instead of climbing the peak and later climbing down as it was a small hill. Seeing me, few others did the same,” she said.

Too late to rescue others

Once they reached the other side of the hill, they spotted Ranjith. “He tried to go back to rescue other people, but it was too late. He helped us in getting down. As we could not walk, we almost slid down the entire stretch along with the three children,” she said.

She said Vibin and Arun sustained critical injuries in their efforts to help the other people.

On the allegation that the trekkers did not have permission from Forest Department, she said she assumed that the group that organised it took care of it. “Also, if we did not have permission, I would expect the Forest department to block us somewhere. But that did not happen,” she added.

Stating that his wife was too stressed to talk, Piyush Agarwal, husband of Pooja, another survivor, said that his wife was among the few people who were trekking faster than the rest. “She told me that it helped them to spot the fire first and start moving uphill swiftly. She just threw all her belongings and started climbing,” he added. “The trekking group had people with good experience and they had taken adequate precautions. They cannot be blamed for the mishap,” he said.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 1:04:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/survivor-recalls-miraculous-escape-while-others-perished/article23166035.ece

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