Great escape from a submerging SUV in a Chennai subway: a first person account

December 06, 2023 12:46 am | Updated 12:46 am IST - Chennai

An inundated subway in Chennai. Picture is used for representational purposes.

An inundated subway in Chennai. Picture is used for representational purposes. | Photo Credit: M. VEDHAN

After a long and tiring day of uncertainties and chipping in to complete the next day’s edition of The Hindu, I was glad while getting into the office cab, longing for some sleep, on Monday midnight.

Little did I know that I was about to get a first-hand experience of the real Chennai floods, which had brought the State capital to a standstill. I shared a Bolero, with my colleague Smriti and our national news editor Tom Cijo. The destinations were Nungambakkam for Smriti, Choolaimedu for Tom and Ashok Nagar for me. It was a relatively joyous ride given the morose conditions around us.

Tom shared his experiences from the previous floods – of 2015 and 2006. I asked him whether this was similar to 2015, and he replied “no”. But no matter the intensity of the flood, I think facing a near-death situation would have changed his opinion.

We dropped Smriti off before making our way to Choolaimedu. The easiest way was through Loyola College subway. We knew subways were risky in the rain. Yet, we decided to check out the route, putting hope in the updated drainage systems and looking out for warnings or barricades. When we reached the subway, a single barricade stood on the side of the road. Thinking the barricade may have been kept aside in a sign of traffic resuming, the driver Victor moved forward. We could see water, but it was impossible to judge the depth in the pitch-black night. There was a car in the middle of the subway, a smaller one.

We wondered whether it was stuck. But since ours was a Bolero, there was confidence on making it through. But, after a few metres into the subway, we realised things have gone wrong. The vehicle started to slow down, and as we passed the other car, we realised it was floating. The engine gave way. Water started coming in and Victor struggled to salvage the situation. Anguished, he tried to turn the engine back on, to no avail. Tom started to make some calls to alert someone of our situation. Though there was not enough water to submerge a Bolero, our locks were jammed and power windows had no power to roll down, leaving us in the slowly drowning car.

Flashes from a similar case in Bengaluru came to me, in which a woman drowned in a subway.

Tom suggested using the headrests to break open a window. As the water reached the steering wheel, we were sure breaking a window was the only option, but all of us were frozen. But miraculously, Victor in his panicked attempts managed to wrench the lock open allowing us to open our doors.

We were not relieved yet, as we were not sure whether the car was grounded or floating. If it was floating, it was impossible to calculate the depth and leaping out would mean going under. But Victor took the leap of faith and found out that the water was at our chest level. We got out, waded through to the walls and got up to a sort of crawl space. We walked through it, crouched and got to the other side.

What surprised me was, there was a group of people at the other side, trying to dissuade vehicles from going through, while no one was there at the end that we got in. The young men asked if we were safe and escorted us to a police booth on the other side of the barricade. They had to knock at the door a few times to wake up the policeman. He enquired about our whereabouts, and informed that the car will be retrieved the next day.

Looking back, I guess the ordeal could have been avoided if there was proper warning on both the sides, rather than one.

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