The death toll due to the forest fire in the Bodi hills of Theni district that trapped trekkers on the Kurangani hill rose to 10 on Monday. Among the dead were seven women and three men, including a man who got married only four months ago. His wife is in a critical condition. Some of the victims have sustained third-degree burns and doctors are battling to save their lives.
The bodies of eight persons were airlifted by IAF helicopters from the site of the blaze at 1,400 metres above the sea level. One body was brought down on a doli . Scientists of the Madras Institute of Technology deployed drones to help rescuers take a safer path to reach the victims.
Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami announced a probe into the “illegal trekking” — an all-women expedition organised by the Chennai Trekking Club and another by the Erode-based Tour De India Holidays. He announced a solatium of ₹4 lakh each to the families of the deceased from the State Disaster Relief Fund. Separately ₹1 lakh would be given to those who sustained severe injures and ₹50,000 to those who sustained minor injuries from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund.
Rescuers believe that the victims, while trying to escape from the inferno, fell one after another into a 70-foot gorge where they were charred. “They were not able to balance or tried to climb down to escape the fire and fell down to death,” said a forest officer, who was in the thick of the 20-hour rescue operations. The rescuers had to use ropes to climb down and retrieve the bodies.
According to Theni forest officials, there is only one official trekking route, Kurangani-Top Station, in the Bodi hills. “But the path, taken by trekkers, is primarily used by estate workers and is not a trekking route,” an official said. The foresters in the Bodi range, revenue officials, tribals and estate workers were the first to begin the rescue.
Kolukkumalai Tea Estate manager N. Johnny said: “Initially, seven of us went down and then asked for five more workers from the estate to join the rescue. One team of trekkers had a guide. There were no foresters with the trekkers. The fire spread fast as the grass was dry. They probably had halted for lunch when they noticed smoke.”
“From what we heard, there was a slight delay in realising danger as some of them were taking photos. Soon, they sensed the trouble and started running. The fire spreads fast, and they had split in panic and tried to escape. While many suffered burns, one group fell into the gorge. They were all dead,” he told The Hindu .
Dr. C.P. Rajkumar, honorary wildlife warden, said he climbed up with his team of paramedical staff to the spot by midnight. “There were 10 of them. They all had burns. We administered firstaid and helped them till they were taken in dolis down to Kurangani,” he said. He too confirmed that the bodies were found in the gorge.
Rescue teams involving forest and fire department personnel and policemen, along with the locals, braved the bitter cold and gusty winds flecked with burnt ash to transport the injured down for about three-four km.