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February 2, 2001
The Rediff Interview/Group Captain S S Danda, station commander, Bhuj Air Force base
Group Captain S S Danda, station commander of the Indian Air Force base at Bhuj, was the only link with quake-ravaged Bhuj for hours after the
early morning catastrophe on January 26.
Despite severe damages at the fighter base, Captain Danda flew in
and out of Bhuj making aerial reconnaissance, reporting to his superiors and
coordinating men and machine for whatever little relief operation
was possible in the initial hours after the earthquake.
An accomplished Mirage pilot, the Air Force officer has held several
crucial posts in the past including that of the commanding officer of
the Mirage squadron at Gwalior.
In between coordinating relief operations and VIP movements, the officer spoke to Special Correspondent
Despite severe damages at the fighter base, Captain Danda flew in and out of Bhuj making aerial reconnaissance, reporting to his superiors and coordinating men and machine for whatever little relief operation was possible in the initial hours after the earthquake.
An accomplished Mirage pilot, the Air Force officer has held several crucial posts in the past including that of the commanding officer of the Mirage squadron at Gwalior.
In between coordinating relief operations and VIP movements, the officer spoke to Special CorrespondentJosy Joseph about the relief measures, his experiences on that fateful day and the town of Bhuj, where he has been stationed since December 1997.
How and where did you personally experience the January 26 earthquake?
I was at the Air Force station, at my home. We were getting ready to leave for the special Republic Day function at our Kendriya Vidyalaya school. When I was about to step out, it began to shake. In seconds it became very stronger, a fan fell off, my television also began to move. Instinctively, we all stepped out.
The quake went on for about one-and-a-half minutes. Outside, my official vehicle, a Maruti Gypsy, started moving. I asked the driver to apply the brake so that it did not hit the building.
In the vicinity, the domestic help's quarter was collapsing. By then I realised it was bad. I immediately took a vehicle and rushed to the spot where I thought the damage was the maximum. Driving around was very difficult because of the debris lying around.
I quickly got in touch with the civil administration. Contacting them was difficult because the DOT (Department of Telecom) lines were not functional. Very soon, I got into a helicopter to survey my base and the surroundings. And it was clear that 12 blocks had collapsed in our base.
Since I had no communication link to the outside world, I was airborne again and reached a neighbouring base. From there I called my command headquarters and informed them of the damage.
How badly has your base been affected?
The exact ground situation, in terms of total casualty etc, is yet not clear. But several of our buildings have been flattened and we have lost lives.
Could you give the casualty figures as of now?
We have lost 65 lives, including families. Basically, 19 airmen and their families. The toll is likely to go up as some are still believed to be buried under the debris. We have also shifted 88 injured to Ahmedabad, Jamnagar and Pune.
Some of our personnel are still trapped, but the salvage operation will take a long time. It is slow. We have to remove the debris to pull the bodies out. There are multi-storeyed buildings, so the work is progressing slowly.
What were your immediate concerns on realising the extent of damage?
Our first concern was rescue. We wanted to save as many people, whether injured or not, from the debris. We evacuating the injured by air. Then our concern was to get supplies, especially medical amenities. All the supplies had to come from outside -- so again airlifting was involved. We had to off-load them for both civil and military rescue teams.
Once the initial need for amenities was met, we started evacuation. This is still continuing. Now we are trying to organise ourselves better, getting proper tents for our displaced, enough food etc. Once that part is taken care of, we would like to go back to our place of work, to see how badly it is affected.
A large chunk of relief for Kutch is reaching the area by air, how heavy is the movement at the airport controlled by the IAF?
There is extensive air movement these days. We operate about 50 to 60 flights during daytime, and about 25 to 30 flights during night. You could compare that with our normal traffic of just two civilian flights during the entire day and 30 odd sorties of fighters per day.
Has there been any damage to the fighter aircraft at your base?
No. None of our fighter aircraft have been damaged.
You have been carrying out aerial surveys. And you have been in this town for almost four years now. How badly has the town of Bhuj been affected?
Bhuj is very badly affected. Inputs coming from various quarters point towards extensive damages to the entire city, including villages around the town. The entire old city has also collapsed. The casualties may go up from the present 10 to 20,000 that is being reported.
There are complaints that rescue and evacuation were much delayed. The response was not immediate enough. What is your reaction?
Evacuation has been the fastest possible. Compared to the magnitude of the tragedy, it may not have been enough. But this was what was possible in those circumstances. We cannot always cope with the demand. Sometime we do fall short of people's expectations.
How long will the rescue and relief operations go on? At least a month?
Even more than a month. All the bodies have to be taken out. Then these buildings have to be razed to the ground and then built again.
But will people return to towns such as Bhuj? Isn't there a possibility of these towns becoming ghost towns?
No. The place is so dear to the people of Bhuj historically. Almost the entire city will be rebuilt. It may take a long while to do that. They will all return.
Design: Dominic Xavier
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