The hill that collapsed: Frantic search in Wayanad for the dead among the rubble

At least 18 people are feared dead in the collapse and several from neighbouring areas are trying to recover the bodies along with the rescue teams.
The hill that collapsed: Frantic search in Wayanad for the dead among the rubble
The hill that collapsed: Frantic search in Wayanad for the dead among the rubble
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Aboobacker and his friend Avaran were in the former's car on Thursday evening. They were trying to go to the Puthumala school that had been converted into a relief centre.

It was during this journey, a little while after 4 pm, that the Pachakkadumala, a beautiful hill range that has been their home for years, came crashing down in heavy rains. Aboobacker and Avaran, who were in a Maruti Swift Dzire car, were swept away. 

Three days later, their bodies and the bodies of seven others are yet to be recovered.

How it unfolded

Heavy rains were lashing the Wayanad district, when on Wednesday evening, a landslide happened in the Puthumala region, which lies 10 km from the nearest Meppadi town. The Pachakkadumala is where the Harrisons Malayalam estate is situated and a total of around 60 families, including people working in the estate and others, lived on the hill and the slopes.

When two houses were swept away in the Wednesday landslide, panchayat member Chandran and his people reached the area in the wee hours of Thursday and shifted the residents living in the slopes to the Puthumala school on the other side of the mountain.

Though landslides have happened in the region previously, what they did not except was that the hill itself would come crumbling down.

Ibrahim, Khalid and two members of his family had been shifted to the school, but on Thursday evening, they came back for a short while to feed their cattle. A few metres away from them, Aboobacker and Avaran were in the car. Another two people feared dead are Nabeesa and Shyla, who were in the canteen in the same area, people say.

No one really knows for sure as at least 18 people were swept away by the gushing water, rocks and slush.

Out of 63 houses in the region, only eight remain.

"A mosque, a temple, a line of 6 one-room quarters for the workers, staff quarters, the canteen, post office and everything else was swept away. If we hadn't moved the families to the camps, around 200 people would have died," says panchayat member Chandran.

Panchayat member Chandran

The 18 people feared dead are Malayalis known to the locals. However, it is yet to be ascertained how many migrant workers from places like Bengal and Bihar who were working in the tea estate and lived in the area, have lost their lives. Some of them have made it to the relief centre.

The search for dead bodies

It's a picturesque drive from Meppadi to Puthumala, and just 3 kms away from the Harrisons Malayalam tea estate is the Soochipara Falls in Vellarimala, a major tourist attraction. Winding roads, tea estates, small streams and waterfalls would otherwise have made this journey a must for tourists. But with rains making the path treacherous, it's been hell for rescuers.

It is people from nearby areas, who climbed on to jeeps and trucks, and removed fallen trees on the path to reach the spot first on Friday. Considering the strong currents, it wasn't easy to maneuver their way through the water. Many like Firoz and friends, who are private contractors working in Meppadi, brought thick ropes. The ropes were drawn from one end to the other and people stuck in the Puthumala school were first brought down and taken to the Meppadi school.

Firoz, who is helping with the rescue

Then began the search for dead bodies. On Friday, eight bodies were recovered. An NDRF battalion from Thrissur too had reached and the people waited with bated breath as the team used a scanner that helps detect heartbeats through the rubble. Though there was a sign that someone was alive beneath the rubble, by the time rescuers reached Selvan on Friday evening, he was dead.

On Saturday, though the search had become more organised, only one body of a woman named Ajitha could be retrieved. At least nine more bodies are in the area but with rains lashing the region every few hours, it is a tough job for the rescuers. Moreover, due to the terrain, they have been unable to lower any machines including diggers. The lone machine that was rolled down, too, got stuck in the mud.

'We want to help'

As one travels from Meppadi to Puthumala, a steady flow of vehicles can be seen - all private cars, jeeps and trucks. People from other towns in Wayanad and even those from Kozhikode have come to help with the rescue and to ferry people up and down the path.

One such group was a team from the international NGO Junior Chamber from Kalpetta, who had brought food for 250 people. On their way back, they were planning what food they should bring on Sunday as the search was bound to continue.

It is a dangerous journey for these people as one has to cross a stretch of the gushing waters to actually reach the estate.

"The risk is something we are aware of, but we are ready to take it," says Firoz, as his jeep crosses the stream. The driver has to be careful as it is a slope and a wrong move can drag the jeep down into the water below. But there are several people who are trying to help the vehicles stay on course so they can reach the place where the hill has collapsed.

It is unclear when the rest of the bodies will be found or if it is at all possible. But locals say they will not give up the search for at least a few days more. "Even if the media and the army go away, we will still be here. This is my home and these people were mine," says Rajendran a resident of Puthumala. 

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