Babu R was trapped in a mountain gorge without food or water for two days till the Indian Army rescued him in a daring mission.
Archana Masih/Rediff.com recounts what transpired during Operation Palakkad, a daring military mission that stunned the nation.
All Photographs and Videos: Kind courtesy Madras Regimental Centre.
'Babu, don't worry. The Army has come'
When that voice pierced through the pitch-dark night, Babu R knew he would survive.
The 23 year old had spent two days stranded in a mountain crevice -- all alone, without food or water.
He had been able to seek help through his mobile phone after falling into a 600 metre deep mountain cavity while trekking with friends in the restricted area of the Malampuzha Reserve Forest in Palakkad, Kerala, on February 7.
For two days, rescue teams of the State Forest Department and the National Disaster Response Force had attempted to extract him. Helicopters and drones had been launched, but the difficulties of terrain and altitude made it impossible to even deliver water to the stranded man.
Babu could hear and seen the hovering chopper, but every attempt had failed.
Every passing minute, his chances of survival were diminishing.
The last drone visual of him came on the evening of February 8.
Nothing was known about Babu, the only child of a widowed mother, after 5 pm that day. Family, friends, district officials and his entire village veered between anxiety and despair.
And then the state government asked the Indian Army for help.
It was the last hope.
Lieutenant Colonel Hemant Raj R, VSM, company commander, Sports Company at the Madras Regimental Centre, MRC, in the Nilgiris had just finished a 5 kilometre run when he was summoned by his commandant, Brigadier Rajeshwar Singh, SC, SM.
In two minutes' time, he was in the commandant's office where he was shown visuals of Babu stuck in the mountain cavity.
Experienced in mountain climbing in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, Lt Col Raj was briefed to plan and execute the rescue mission which happened to be in his home state.
It was around 6 pm.
Lt Col Raj, who has served three years on the Line of Control in Kashmir, assembled a seven member team of officers and men highly skilled in mountain warfare. They left the MRC in Tamil Nadu at 7 pm in two vehicles for Kerala.
The rescue mission comprised:
Captain Anirudh Yadav, High Altitude Warfare School instructor
Subedar K Deepak, High Altitude Warfare School instructor
Naib Subedar Harish Anand, High Altitude Warfare School Qualified
Naik Balakrishnan, High Altitude Warfare School instructor
Sepoy Antony Jayaseelan, Climbing course qualified
Sepoy Bhaskaran, Climbing course qualified
En route, the team discussed the plan. Naik Balakrishnan would be lowered into the cavity, Subedar K Deepak would be positioned in between, Captain Anirudh was commander of the party entrusted with anchoring the ropes and so on...
Lt Col Raj asked the team if Babu could be pulled out safely.
'Ho jayega, (it will be done),' came the reply.
Meanwhile, another team of soldiers including expert mountaineers from the Parachute Regimental Centre in Bangaluru boarded an aircraft for Palakkad.
10.30 pm. Walayar check post
Word had reached that the Indian Army's rescue team was on its way and people had lined both sides of the road from the Walayar check post to the base of the mountain.
As their vehicle made its way, men, women and children stood with folded hands as if imploring the men in uniform to save Babu.
Some saluted them.
"We knew we were their last and final hope. We could sense their belief in the Indian Army and the conviction that now that the Army is here, they will bring Babu safely home," recalls Lt Col Raj, who was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal for rescuing stranded civilians during the Kerala floods while he was on leave in 2018.
On reaching the base of the mountain, the men were met by 200-250 people including the district collector, superintendent of police and forest rangers.
Helplessness was writ large on their faces.
The mountain had scarce vegetation. There was no way to approach the sharp 90 degrees cliff from below. The men had to execute a top-down approach in the narrow cavity to reach Babu.
Local trekkers and NDRF personnel who had attempted the rescue over the past couple of days, briefed the Indian Army team about the terrain. Three trekkers and forest officials familiar with the terrain served as guides, warning them about encountering bears and elephants en route.
11.15 pm. Lt Col Raj and Captain Yadav decided to move uphill immediately.
Their equipment included ropes, battery-operated drilling machines, harnesses, search lights, hammers, cutting knives, carabiners, descenders, stoppers, flash lights, emergency food and water.
12.30 am. The team closed in on the location and Lt Col Raj started calling out Babu's name.
"I shouted out, 'Babu don't worry, we have come. The Army has come'. Don't say anything more, conserve your energy," says Lt Col Raj in a phone conversation, two days after returning to the MRC.
The civilians in the rescue team shot a video which was sent to the collector. She expressed her happiness and told them she was confident they would rescue Babu.
6.30 am. Three bears and the mountain top
Captain Yadav and Subedar Deepak led the way to the top of the mountain. They would climb up every 50 metres, secure a rope and fetch up the rest of the team and equipment.
Sure enough, three bears were spotted along the way.
Lt Col Raj remained in constant touch with the drone operators to establish Babu's exact location.
Twenty-five minutes after reaching the top of the cliff, they located Babu.
The drone visuals were being sent to Lt Col Raj's phone which helped him navigate the route of extraction.
Captain Yadav and Naib Subedar Harish found two bases -- a boulder and a tree -- which were used to fasten two ropes, in case one broke.
Naik Balakrishnan lowered himself down. One drone was positioned exactly behind him.
Lt Col Raj could see the live drone visuals and was controlling Naik Balakrishnan's movement from above. "I was communicating the route and the obstacles on his Motorola device," he said.
"I told him if the battery failed, he should then use the drone behind him as a guide -- if the drone moved 2-3 times on the right, he should move right and vice versa."
Finally, Naik Balakrishnan reached Babu.
The soldier patted Babu's shoulder, gave him water and secured him to his harness.
Naik Balakrishnan had initially planned to rappel down, but realised the overhanging terrain was too tough. The rope was not long enough and knotting 5 ropes together to lengthen it posed a grave risk.
If the rope broke, both Babu and he would lose their lives.
Assisted by the visuals provided by the drones, the men pulled Naik Balakrishnan and Babu up safely.
Babu was given chocolate, water and instructed to refrain from talking to conserve energy. He was weak and overwhelmed. He kissed his saviours and thanked them.
'I want to join the army,' he said.
The waiting doctors administered first aid to the injuries on his leg.
An IAF helicopter hovered overhead to take Babu to the district hospital. Since it was unable to land in the difficult terrain, Lt Col Raj strapped Babu onto him and was winched up into the chopper.
After landing, Babu was taken into the waiting ambulance wherein he collapsed -- but did not let go of Lt Col Raj's hand.
The doctors revived him quickly and he reached the district hospital in ten minutes.
'Thank you, Indian Army'
When the rescue team came down the hill, Babu's mother and locals hugged them. Aartis was performed and cries of 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' and 'Indian Army ki jai' rent the air.
A few hours later, the heroes of the Madras Regiment team departed for base. Less than 24 hours after they had left the regimental centre, they were back -- exhausted but elated about having done what they are trained for.
"The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in an operation. We train for this day in and out and had no inhibitions about this mission," said Lt Col Raj.
Since then, they have received several calls from Babu and his mother. The relieved mother inquiring after Naik Balakrishnan's minor injuries, thanking them profusely.
Babu celebrated his 24th birthday on Sunday, February 13. The soldiers cut cakes for him to celebrate his special day over a video call.
When the soldiers spoke to him on his birthday, he told them once again that he wants to join the Indian Army.
"What can be a better reward than motivating someone to join the Army?" says Lt Col Raj.
"This mission was a big satisfaction for our team."
Watch: Operation Palakkad
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com