Commander Vijay Varma, who led the mission to airlift Sajitha Jabil, whose water bag had broken, speaks to TNM.

Toughest rescue op Navy Commander who airlifted pregnant woman in Kerala floodsCommander Vijay Varma
news Kerala Floods Wednesday, August 22, 2018 - 17:13

On August 17, the Twitter account of the Indian Navy shared a video of a daring rescue in Kerala floods. Sajitha Jabil, a pregnant woman who was stranded in a building near the Kochi airport, needed immediate help. Her water bag had ruptured, and she needed to be evacuated in order to get the medical aid she needed.

The video of Sajitha being airlifted garnered a lot of well-deserved praise for the Navy crew behind it. However, it shows merely a glimpse of the challenges they faced in attempting and carrying out that mission.

TNM spoke to Commander Vijay Varma, who led the mission and piloted the Chetak helicopter with his four-member crew and a doctor on board.

One of the most challenging rescues

Commander Vijay and his team had just come back from another rescue and were refuelling their helicopter when they came to know about Sajitha’s case. They left for the spot immediately.

The first hurdle they faced was finding her. “At that time, there were no roads or railway tracks visible. All of it was submerged in water. It took us a while to locate her, and then to get into the area because it was extremely congested. Buildings, tall trees… we navigated precariously through all of that,” he narrates.

“The operation was very risky because of multiple challenges. One, the area we had to rescue her from was very congested. The roof was converted into a shelter and this was a balcony where we had to lift her from. Two, the wind tends to come from different directions with buildings around. And the weather ensured that it was quite windy. The Chetak is a light helicopter so it can get pushed around by the wind,” Commander Vijay says.

While the winds tested the stability of the helicopter, Commander Vijay recalls that the next challenge was Sajitha’s condition and safety. He says, “We had to be very careful to lift her up steadily and straight. Because if the wire started swinging, there was a risk to her… She could have hit another surface of the nearby buildings.”

Commander Vijay also had to hold the helicopter steady for a long time because there were five winching operations that had to be carried out. First the doctor had to go down and assess Sajitha. Once he was pulled back up, the free diver would have to be lowered down to secure her, who then had to be pulled up. And finally, the diver had to be pulled up.

“Each winching operation takes about five minutes. And then if you count the time between them, the helicopter had to be held steady for almost 30 minutes,” Commander Vijay says. “This was probably the most challenging hover I did. In that congested setting the weather conditions, it was very difficult.”

The rescues in Kerala floods

After the team rescued Sajitha, they left again for another rescue in the same area. In a building opposite to where Sajitha was, there was another pregnant woman, whom the team airlifted next.

“Frankly, all of it has just merged into one now,” Commander Vijay says. “We have just been functioning on adrenaline for all these days. We don’t know which rescue happened in what order.”

Another rescue his team and he were involved with was one where a child was airlifted from Aluva. The video of the same was also shared on Twitter and commended. “Our free diver LAFD Amit secured the child in one arm and we pulled them up. It is important to remember here that all this is a team effort. My winch operator and co-pilot’s skills were also completely crucial in ensuring we pulled off the rescues,” Commander Vijay notes.

From left: LAFD Amit (Free Diver), CHAFD Jasbir (winch operator), CDR Vijay Varma (Pilot in Command), Lt Bhardwaj (Co-pilot)

Commander Vijay was also involved in rescues during the Chennai floods of 2015. What made Kerala more challenging, he says, is that here the risks were compounded by the distances involved. “This was an entire state that was affected. We had to go to various parts of the state and do it quickly. In Chennai though, the casualties were more because it’s much more densely populated,” he observes.

How experience helped

Apart from having part of rescue operations during Chennai floods, Commander Vijay has been flying since 2000. He has also been teaching flying for 13 years – this experience of flying helped him immensely in the rescue operations as well.

He is originally from Kerala and is posted in the state as well; and it helped knowing the topography. “The Chetak crew does search and rescue… Chetak flights in India are called ‘The Angels’. And since we are in God’s Own Country, the Chetak crew here are known as ‘God’s Own Angels’,” says the 42-year-old Commander.

Despite the stressful and devastating conditions that he and many other rescue officials have seen in the past two weeks, what helps is knowing that they have been of help.

“When we came back after completing our sortie on August 17, someone asked me if I knew Sajitha was safe and had delivered a healthy baby,” Commander Vijay recounts. “It was a happy way to end the sortie after the devastation and desperation we see all day. Receiving that good news at the end of the day was pretty amazing,” he smiles.

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