January 27, 2001


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'Bhuj has become a ghost town'

It is 2315 hours on January 26, and 72-year-old Keshubhai Patel, Gujarat's chief minister, is seated in the police control room in Ahmedabad, along with P C Pande, the city's police commissioner, his secretary P K Lahiri and other officers.

Patel's second tenure as chief minister began in March 1998. Since then he has faced all kinds of natural disasters. First, it was the killer hurricane in Kandla. Next came the floods on the Tapi river. Since 1999, his government has confronted a drought. In 2000, Ahmedabad was flooded.

He spoke about another 'unlucky day' in his life with Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt.

0900 hours

I did not know about the earthquake, as I was travelling to a flag-hoisting ceremony. When I reached the venue, my officers told me, ''Sir, the earth shook. The jolt was severe." I quickly completed the ceremony and rushed home.

I wanted to make some telephone calls. However, at home, all the telephones had gone 'dead.' I went to the Ahmedabad circuit house. Even there, the phones were 'dead.'

So, I came to the police control room at 0930. Since then I am here, controlling rescue operations.

I first called up Kankhane, the chief of the meteorological department. He was not available. I left a message for him. A few days ago, he had explained to me what was happening beneath the earth of Gujarat. We had experienced tremors in Bhavnagar recently.

After an hour, we were still unaware about the epi-centre of the earthquake. I kept trying to gather information.

1100 hours

Union Home Minister L K Advani called up. He wanted to know about the loss of life. We gave him whatever information we had.

Most of our information came in from ordinary people and collectors's offices.

By 1130 hours, Kankhane met me and gave us all the details about the earthquake. We had learnt a lot more from New Delhi by then. The epi-centre was 25 km from Bhuj on the north-east side.

By noon, I guessed, the casualty figures in Bhuj would be high.

We began preparation for rescue operations. Doctors and food were kept ready. The biggest problem was the system had crashed. There was no electricity. Telephone lines were 'dead.' What do you do? From New Delhi, we learnt about the condition of Bhuj airport.

We used a satellite telephone, which I had to operate in the open.

Doctors were ready to fly out, but they could not leave because there were casualties at Bhuj airport itself.

Advani told us about his visit. Defence Minister George Fernandes and Bharatiya Janata Party chief Bangaru Laxman are also expected.

Rajasthan is arranging for quilts for those left homeless.

1200 hours

I wanted to rush to Bhuj, but I had to make many more arrangements as the hours passed.

I asked my colleagues Ashok Bhat and G Subbarao to fly to Kandla. By then, minister and the MLA from Bhuj, Suresh Mehta, contacted me. We got a first-hand report. It was the most relieving part of the day.

I wanted to make a public announcement, but how could I communicate? Even Doordarshan was closed! Luckily, All India Radio was working. I called the staffers and gave a speech.

I told the people to be alert. I told them to expect more minor tremors, but urged them not to worry as the situation would be normal soon. We were doing our best.

1400 hours

I went to casualty wards in various hospitals. I was getting many more casualty figures. Suresh Mehta told me there may be 1,000 casualties in Bhuj alone. He said all the town's old structures were affected. Bhuj has become a ghost town.

I immediately called the army authorities. Unfortunately, all the senior officers were in Jodhpur for an exercise. There are now 300 troops in Ahmedabad. In Bhuj, 400 personnel from three battalions are helping to clear the debris.

The damage is worst in Bhuj, Bhachao, Anjar and Rapar.

Sureshbhai told me that all the old city areas have been wiped out. Eighty per cent houses in these four towns have vanished. Morbi's famous clock tower has collapsed. In Ahmedabad, a historic structure was damaged. A bridge at Surajbari has developed cracks. The fort of Bhadra in Ahmedabad has been damaged.

He said hundreds of buildings have been wiped out. In Ahmedabad, 135 distress calls were received. How can you manage when the revenue officer himself has died in Anjar?

In Ahmedabad, we permitted people to carry away the bodies of relatives without post-mortem reports. How can you handle so many dead?

1500 hours

Prime Minister Vajpayee called. I told him about the damage. This was nature's trick [kudaratni karamat]. I gave him the death toll. He wanted to know about Kutch. We briefed him about rescue measures.

My chief secretary was called by the Cabinet secretary for a report. The Cabinet secretary called a meeting of his secretaries. At 1530, they asked for a preliminary report. At 1630, we faxed it so that it could be considered by the Cabinet when it met at 1700.

1700 hours

I called up Maharashtra's chief minister for help. Luckily, Kirit Somaiya, the Mumbai MP who heads some Gujarati organisation, was with him. He sent me help on an airforce plane. The Madhya Pradesh chief minister too called me. I also received some help from Rajasthan's chief minister. We just managed by sending cars to officers's home. Arre, my wife could not contact me till 1730. My officer dialled 50 times to get her.

1900 hours

I got more messages from Navsari and other places. People from Kutch were coming down in big numbers. From Bhachau around 300 people came to Radhanpur, 300 to Patan and 150 to Mehsana. That created a shortage of medical staff. We wanted orthopaedic surgeons and physicians. We made an announcement on Doordarshan for people to come forward and help built tents for the affected people.

There is no electricity in Bhuj, so we have arranged generators from Mehsana. Since, there is no electricity, there is no water. Things are difficult since you need bulldozers, cranes and glass cutters in big numbers in post-earthquake rescue work. We have shifted the mining equipment from the Pandhro lignite field in Bhuj.

I have been on the phone these last few hours, collecting information and taking decisions. The latest death figure is higher than 1,000. In Ahmedabad more than 300 people have died. Many poor diamond workers have died and this toll may increase. I think a hundred diamond cutters may be dead. Diamonds are costly and the labour is kept in a locked room. When the earthquake occurred, the watchmen ran away without opening the locks. And that killed many!

In Rajkot rural, 147 people have died. In Surat the toll is 31 dead, 28 in Patan, 55 in Surendranagar, 87 in Jamnagar. More than 3,500 people are injured.

0000 hours

God is testing me. Everything is not in our hands.

The Complete Coverage

The RD Killer Quake of Jan 26, 2001: Technical details
All about earthquakes in India and their impact
India Meteorological Department's earthquake reports
Disaster relief set-up in India
Major earthquakes across the world in recent times
A post-quake volunteer's unusual tryst with the departed
Earthquake News: Web site offering comprehensive news, information and features
Earthquake site map

USGS: Earthquake Hazards Program

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