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A Few Good Men and the Angry Sea: How the IAF regained a lost paradise

May 27, 2015 20:50 IST

'I had heard that it was a paradise... but when I first lay my eyes on it, it wasn't what I had pictured.'

'We had known of the devastation, but we didn't know the true extent of it.'

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe recounts one of his most challenging assignments yet.

For over 30 years, Air Commodore Nitin Sathe has served the Indian Air Force as a helicopter pilot.

He has been part of several key operations in India and overseas and is currently President 1Air Force Selection Board in Dehra Dun. But Air Commodore Sathe's most challenging mission remains the relief, rescue and rehabilitation of the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

In his first book, A Few Good Men and the Angry Sea, the officer recounts the daunting task at hand and the Indian Air Force's herculean efforts that helped the island and its population back on its feet. (Read an excerpt here)

Air Commodore Sathe tells Abhishek Mande Bhot/Rediff.com the enormity of the task that lay ahead of him when he landed at Car Nicobar and how his team and he kept chipping at it till it was done.

Could you describe what you witnessed as you first lay eyes on the island of Car Nicobar?

We had known of the devastation but we didn't know the true extent of it.

(Then Vice Chief of the Air Staff and 1971 war veteran) Air Marshal Neelu Malik was flying the aircraft that was carrying us. He decided to go around the island to do a reconnaissance to get an idea of the entire impact.

As we peered out of the small round windows of the AN-32, we had the first view of the tsunami-devastated island. And that was when we witnessed first hand the full impact of the tsunami.

The sea was murky brown with trees and logs floating around; the area around the beach was flattened; houses appeared to be just plinths along the coastlines and there was a bunch of people who had gathered around the tarmac (near the ATC building)

Had you been to Car Nicobar before 2004?

2004 was my first time at Car Nicobar.

I had heard a lot of things about it; I'd heard it was in the back of beyond and was supposed to be one of the most difficult postings, simply because how far it is from the mainland.

That being said, I had also heard that it was a paradise, untouched, away from civilisation and altogether very beautiful.

When I first lay my eyes on it, it wasn't the paradise I had pictured though one could sense how beautiful it would have been just a few days ago.

There was destruction and devastation all around.

You volunteered for the job. Could you tell us your reasons for it?

I had completed a year of my posting in Patiala and I was looking to do something different from routine.

When I heard about the disaster, I expressed interest in going there to fly.

It was supposed to be a three-month assignment, but I stayed on for a year.

What were the first challenges you faced as you landed at Car Nicobar?

The first challenge was to just work out how and from where to get started.

Some of the survivors who hadn't been evacuated earlier flew back to the mainland in the aircraft we came in.

Everyone from the new team that had arrived was new to this place that was in shambles and we had to put it back in order.

So I suppose, the first challenge was to just get the work going.

We knew that since all the jetties were destroyed, our supplies would have to be flown in.

It would be some time before we could get heavy equipment in by ships.

So we had to plan the rehab process by means of getting the supplies by air.

The sheer volume required was huge and we had to prioritise.

For that we needed the runway to be in working order and ready to take on large transport planes. So we started by clearing the runway.

But I think the first big challenge for us was to decide how and where to start from.

You have spoken to several people who were witness to this catastrophic event. Could you recount the actual event? How long did the earthquake last? When did the water start rising etc?

The epicentre of the earthquake was in Indonesia and measured about nine on the Richter Scale.

The tremors were felt immediately in Car Nicobar; people were shaken out of their beds.

Some of the men immediately ventured outside and headed to the runway to take account of the damage.

Since the water had (initially, after the earthquake) receded, stunning corals that weren't visible earlier revealed themselves and so a few younger officers headed with their cameras towards the sea.

About 45 minutes after the first tremors were felt the waters began to rise rapidly.

Thereafter came the two waves, each about 1.5 to 2 km wide and between 35 and 40 feet high, washing away everything that stood in its path.

The Air Force station was hit. But the water didn't reach too close to the runway.

A cement-mixing plant close to the tarmac did get washed away, but not a lot of water made its way to the manoeuvring area where the helicopters are parked.

The official residences were hit very badly since they were located along the coast.

Could you share some light on how the relief workers (such as yourself) coped with sights of destruction day in and out? How did you and your team deal with this on a daily basis?

Of course, we were all shaken up when we first saw the destruction but once you get involved in something like this, you tend to blank out everything else other than the task at hand.

You keep looking forward; you keep planning.

Rumours were rife that the island stem had become weak so there was some fear and concern amongst our men.

They were afraid that the island would sink and that there was no point in trying to save it.

We had to counsel them and boost their morale.

But overall, there was just so much to do, I don't think we had much time to focus on the negatives.

You have thanked your wife among others in your book. How did your family support you and deal with your absence, especially given that you were incommunicable for good stretches of time?

Once she realised why I had volunteered for this operation, my wife was very supportive. She never said a word about it neither was she grossly worried.

I had initially volunteered to stay for three months, but I also wanted to stay on and see what we had started to its logical end.

We were given to understand that the operation would last about three months initially.

Most of the team changed after three months and a fresh lot came in.

There were three of us who volunteered to stay on for the complete year when a choice was given because we wanted to see some of the work we had started reach some fructification.

Could you describe your last visit to the base?

My last visit to Car Nicobar was in March 2014.

After a stopover in Port Blair where I had to collect some data, I flew to Car Nicobar and saw for the first time how much it had changed.

It was a beautiful experience to go back to see how things that we had started were now fructifying.

The saplings we had planted had grown into large trees; the Air Force station had returned to a fully operational status.

Of course, there were signs of destruction that cannot be wiped away but it was heartening to see how all our efforts had borne fruit.

What were your greatest learnings from your year at Car Nicobar?

When we started out, we didn't even have the most basic necessities.

The taps were dry; there were no functioning toilets, no potable water... everything was a struggle.

So the big learning, of course, was to not take anything for granted and cherish everything you receive as a bonus.

You also realised along the way how amazingly little you need to survive and how unimportant all the material things you have are.

What were the islands of Car Nic like? What were your experiences of the locals that you met there?

The locals were very friendly and led simple lives.

While there are some parts of the islands that remain out of bounds because outsiders aren't allowed to interact with a few specific tribes, otherwise most of the people on the island were exposed to the comforts of modernity.

Several of them had children studying in places as far as New Delhi.

These people looked up to us for support and were very warm and we would often celebrate important events and festivals together.

However, the one thing that all of us learnt from them was their resilience and the will to resurrect their lives amidst all the destruction.

What are the challenges of doing rescue ops over large expanses of water and that too so far removed from the mainland?

Flying over water is always a risky business.

Although all aircraft have adequate safety equipment, the weather is pretty bad (almost) all through the year in these parts of the globe

There are thunderstorms and it isn't difficult to get caught in one.

But apart from all of that, it was altogether a logistical challenge simply because the distances were so large.

If anyone had to be rescued, it would require gigantic efforts to airlift casualties from remote islands to the closest medical facility in Port Blair or for more severe cases, to the mainland.

Sometimes it would take two full days to get someone in and out of the islands.

How did you store your memories of those days, since you brought out this book ten years later?

I did eventually get a computer at Car Nicobar where I was jotting some points, but I wasn't very judicious in taking down specific notes.

However I suppose I was also soaking in the experience every single day.

So when I began writing the book finally after all those years, I discovered that I didn't have to go back to those few notes jotted in an MS Word file.

I could recount almost every day of my stay on the island and as I began writing, I happily discovered that everything just came back.

What are some of the basic things that lay people need to be aware of regarding disaster preparedness?

The thing is you can never be prepared enough for a disaster.

The government, administration, relief agencies -- all have to have the wherewithal to start relief operations quickly so that maximum lives are saved.

The first responders to any tragedy are the local survivors.

They need to be moved out and fresh teams need to be brought in as soon as possible and the place needs to be brought back to normalcy as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, there is no way a lay person can be 'prepared' to face a disaster.

What matters however are post-disaster operations and planning and management of resources.

You can buy A Few Good Men and the Angry Sea, here

Abhishek Mande