The death toll in the tragic Theni forest fire has risen to 21. The latest trekker to succumb to burn injuries from the fatal incident on March 11 is 23-year-old Bhargavi, a resident of Chennai.
Of the 39 men and women who decided to spend their weekend trekking the Western Ghats from Kolukumalai to Kurangini, only 18 have survived and even that number would not have been possible if not for the quick thinking of 27-year-old Vijaylakshmi.
The Chennai-based techie, was amongst the group of 28 people from the Chennai Trekkers Club that had embarked on the climb on March 10.
The group noticed smoke billowing from the range when they stopped for lunch at around 2pm on March 11.
"We were told by the guides that it was a forest fire. And we all ran in different directions. We were trying to move to higher ground but the smoke was coming in fast and it was everywhere. We were surrounded by the fire," recalls Vijaylakshmi.
According to forest officials, January to May is a season for forest fires in the reserve area and the rangers all knew this. The long grass called 'Manjapul' by locals loses all moisture in this season and exists as dry cover on the mountain. And as the stalks rub against each other in the heat, it causes sparks that could have led to the fire.
"Nine people from the other trekking group from Erode managed to escape the fire by running to another side. Meanwhile, over 10 of us began running in another direction," says Vijaylakshmi. But only two others made it out of the forest with her.
"At one point when we were running, I turned back to look at the forest. I saw that the smoke had come closer and I didn't turn again till I reached a safe area," she says.
The call that saved them
But that didn't mean that she was ready to leave the others behind.
The 27-year-old immediately called members of the trekking club and informed them of the incident. She then even called the nearest ambulance service that was available.
"I had my phone with me and I started making calls. Soon, the local inspector called me back to enquire about what happened. Help arrived and we were taken to the Bodi hospital for treatment," she explains.
Vijaylakshmi's call had alerted district officials as well and medical help arrived at the spot to save those who had sustained burn injuries.
"I had minimal burns and was given first aid immediately. I was worried about the others," she says.
But does she blame the trekking club for the incident?
"We were amateur trekkers but our guides were really good. What happened was an accident and nothing could have been done in that situation to help," she says.
A debate, however, still rages on over the trekking club and the forest department's role in the deaths of trekkers.
But for Vijaylakshmi who suffered through this terrible ordeal, the focus now is to put the tragedy behind her and move on with life. "It was a nightmare. I am trying to forget it."