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A few good men and the angry sea

Last updated on: January 05, 2015 11:05 IST

A Few Good Men and the Angry Sea: 2004 Tsunami, the IAF Story, is the incredible story of survival, guts, and indomitable spirit of the air warriors in rebuilding the strategically important Car Nicobar air base, says Nitin Gokhale.

Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, second from left, with Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, the author, second from right.Ten years ago, one of the 21st century's biggest disasters -- the tsunami -- struck most of South and South-East Asia killing over quarter of a million people. Closer home, the tsunami affected southern Indian states, but its most devastating impact was felt in the Andaman Nicobar group of islands.

The island of Car Nicobar is about 1,500 kilometres east of Chennai and almost the same distance south of Kolkata. It takes four-and-a-half hours to arrive on the island from Chennai by a slow moving propeller aircraft like the Antonov-32. The sea route is an experience in itself and takes about 48 hours.

It is also the southern-most Indian military base that houses an Indian Air Force Station. Car Nicobar was completely destroyed in December 2004. Many air warriors and their families died; the infrastructure on the island was totally flattened by the rampaging sea on that fateful morning.

The IAF, in typical military fashion, launched one of its biggest missions in the Andaman Nicobar islands, but after the immediate rescue was done, the big task of retrieving the situation, rebuilding the base from scratch and rehabilitating civilians as well as families of air warriors remained.

That's when a task force was formed. And in no time, CarNic as the Car Nicobar base is known, was up and running. The effort was herculean.

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, a serving senior helicopter pilot of the Indian Air Force, then a wing commander in-charge of a station at Patiala, was made the Task Force Commander of the team that was entrusted with putting the CarNIC base back on its feet.

A decade after the tsunami, Air Commodore Sathe has put together the incredible story of survival, guts, resilience and indomitable spirit of the air warriors and their families, civilians and the government's efforts in rebuilding the strategically important military base, in a book A Few Good Men and the Angry Sea: 2004 Tsunami, the IAF Story.

As he says:

26 December 2004. A day that changed my life forever. That day, the tsunami ravaged a large part of the peninsular region of India, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in particular, causing devastation and tragedy. I was among the few who had the opportunity to go and serve on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands soon after the catastrophe occurred.

That experience changed the way I look at life. I would first like to salute those who bore the brunt of the earthquake and the subsequent deadly waves. They had no choice when nature unleashed its fury on them.

I salute the team of dedicated Indians who were part of the rescue, relief and rehabilitation effort, who toiled against tremendous odds to help humanity. These people came to the devastated islands by choice. Volunteers came from all walks of life -- from the Indian Armed Forces, the Paramilitary, the National Disaster Relief Force, the Police, voluntary organisations, the IT industry and other fields.

They had just one goal -- to help the affected get back on their feet as soon as possible.

The book records the early hours of tsunami thus:

Squadron Leader Selson Rodrigues hosted a Christmas party at his home near the beach that year. Almost all the officers and their families stationed at the Indian Air Force base on the island attended the celebrations which continued well into the night. Plans were made for a beach dance party on New Year's Eve.

The bachelors wanted the party to be held in the ante-room at the Officers' Mess, which had recently been fitted with disco lights and a huge music system. These young officers felt that the station had had too many parties by the sea and 2005 should be brought in differently. The party at the Rodrigues' home wound up well past midnight.

A couple of hours later (0628 hours IST), strong tremors shook the island. The residents were jolted out of their sleep by the tremors and the cracking noise that accompanied them it. This lasted for almost six to eight minutes, making walls fracture and fixtures fall all over. More aftershocks followed in a few minutes.

It seemed that the entire island was in a continuous swaying motion. The islands are prone to high seismic activity, so those stationed on Car Nicobar were familiar with earthquakes.

This one, though, was gigantic compared to the ones they had experienced so far. Flying Officer D J Bhandarkar, a still serving officer who is one of the survivors of the 2004 tsunami, describes it graphically in his diary: 'In my sleep, I felt as if someone was shaking me very vigorously. I opened my eyes. The bed on which I was sleeping got pushed away and crashed against the cupboard which was almost two feet away and came back. I was shocked. The fan above was shaking from side to side so violently that all the blades had bent. All around there was a haunting sound coming from the ground.'

Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, right, with Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, the author, left, and Air Commodore Krishna Kumar, centre, who won a Kirti Chakra for his heroism after the tsunami at the Car Nicobar air base.'The walls were shaking like paper, the floor was shaking, moving up and down with a very severe screeching sound coming from the walls of the house. I saw water seeping in from the overgrowth with tremendous force and it was heading in our direction. Telephones rang and discussions took place. The officers started trooping out of their homes and stood talking to each other across the fences, unaware at the time of what was to come.'

Even as they were discussing the situation, some of the officers noticed the Station Commander, Group Captain V V Bandopadhyay, whizzing by in his car. Bandy wanted to find out what damage had been caused to the hangars, service property and the airmen's accommodation.

He was most worried about the hangars since they had been declared weak and fragile by experts who had examined them recently. As the bewildered personnel stood looking out towards the sea, they were stunned to discover that the water had withdrawn much more than it did even during very low tides.

As a result, the brilliant coral was visible and glistened in multiple colours, exposed from under the water for the first time. Intrigued, some adventurous officers grabbed their cameras and rushed to the shoreline.

The sea continued to recede and the officers had an eyeful of the brilliant blues, reds, oranges and yellows of the exposed corals, little understanding the sinister implications of this beautiful sight. Squadron Leader N S Dihot had just bought a video camera and decided this was an opportunity not to be missed. He dashed down to the beach to get the footage he wanted. A damaged camera was washed ashore a few days later; the man was lost forever...

The book, a mix of personal recollections, the post-disaster rescue efforts and the journey of the base in the last decade, should be read by everyone who cares for the armed forces.

At the time of the tsunami, the base supported an approximate population of 2,000 which included the families of officers and airmen. Barring the absence of families, today, the air base is fully functional and available for round-the-clock operations.

The strategic reach of the Air Force and the power projection of our country is enhanced manifold due to the availability of this base at this very strategic location.

The cover of the book at the launch at Vayu Bhavan, the Indian Air Force Headquarters.Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha released the book at Air HQ on Friday, December 26, 2014.

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, his colleagues and the Air Force need to be commended for this marvellous effort.

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Images:

  • Top: Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, second from left, with Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, the author of the book A Few Good Men and the Angry Sea: 2004 Tsunami, the IAF Story, second from right.
  • Middle: Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, right, with author Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, left, and Air Commodore Krishna Kumar, centre, who won a Kirti Chakra for his heroism after the tsunami at the Car Nicobar air base.
  • The cover of the book at the launch at Vayu Bhavan, the Indian Air Force headquarters.
Nitin Gokhale