It was just before 9 am on a cold morning of Republic Day 2001 in the Bathinda cantonment area. My wife and I were playing with our seven-month-old daughter at our military accommodation in what is called the Old Officers' Colony when we felt a mighty shake.
Both of us instinctively looked up at the ceiling; the fan was swaying to and fro like some pendulum of disaster. It took a moment or two before the logic of realisation overcame the emotion of shock, and we held each other tight till the tremors stopped after a very, very long minute.
Unknown to us and to the rest of the nation at the time – there was no internet or the now standard plethora of instant news channels – a massive earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter Scale with its epicentre about nine kilometres south-west of village Chobari in Bhachau Taluka, had struck the Kutch area of Gujarat.
The toll of this massive quake, whose seismic waves were felt in almost every corner of India, later went up to 20,000 with over 1.6 lakh injured.
Republic Day is more than just a national holiday in the Indian Army: Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) of Army units are invited for beer to the Officers' Mess. The JCOs reciprocate on Independence Day by inviting the officers of their unit for beer to the JCOs' Club. I was a relatively junior major at the time.
The officers of 111 Engineer Regiment, a unit nicknamed 'Triplites', where I was then serving as Intelligence Officer (IO) was no different, and all unit JCOs were invited for beer at 11 am at the beautiful Officers' Mess that overlooked a large water body.
Unaware of the disaster that had struck over 1,200 kilometres away in Gujarat, the officers and JCOs duly assembled for their beer function which lasted till 12.30 pm. All then retired to their quarters, still unaware of what lay ahead.
Barely had I reached my house and changed out of my uniform for an afternoon nap that the doorbell rang, rather urgently. It was a despatch rider (DR), one of those intrepid Enfield Bullet riders whose task is to deliver important messages, come rain, shine or enemy fire.
All officers of the regiment had been called by the Commanding Officer (CO) of the Triplites, Colonel (later Brigadier) KK Tiku, Sena Medal. The order said dress did not matter; I realised something was amiss as all officers had been summoned at such a short notice on a holiday.
As I zipped to the regiment in a tracksuit on my red Yamaha motorcycle, I saw the CO’s cane orderly standing in the car park and telling any officer arriving to immediately enter the office. All protocol seemed to have been suspended: never had we been told to walk into the CO’s office for a conference without all officers first assembling and the second-in-command of the regiment marching them in.
As I entered the CO’s office, I found two officers already seated inside. Colonel Tiku got straight to the point: A devastating earthquake had struck Gujarat and the unit was to move to the disaster zone immediately for rescue and relief operations, called Operation Sahayta. I was tasked to be the Liaison Officer (LO) for the regiment.
I had precisely 30 minutes to reach Bhisiana Air Force Station, 22 kilometres from Bhatinda Cantonment, in order to coordinate the move of the regiment as four IL-76 transport aircraft were landing at 2.30 pm to move the Triplites to Bhuj from where we were to proceed onward by road to Bhachau.
I touched triple-digit speeds as I rushed back home. Within five minutes, I was in combat dress while my wife hurriedly packed a suitcase. Soon, I was on my way to Bhisiana Airfield. Once there, I was constantly attending calls on the solitary landline telephone in the crew building from senior army officers up the chain of command, all wanting to know the status of the airlift.
Every second, every minute mattered. It was a national emergency!
At 2.25 pm, 111 Engineer Regiment starting arriving at Bhisiana Airfield. At exactly 2.30 pm the first of the gigantic IL-76s landed. In just 10 minutes, three more of these awesome flying machines had descended.
All four IL-76 aircraft were loaded up in double-quick time, and at 3 pm the first of the four IL-76s took off with the other three following. We landed about 45 minutes later; by 4 pm all four Ilyushins had arrived. The runway and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower at Bhuj had been damaged in the earthquake but the enterprising IAF personnel of Bhuj Air Force Station made temporary repairs to the runway and guided the four IL-76s on their radio sets while sitting in the open ground besides the runway.
This was our first indication of the severity of the damage. We were the first regiment of the Indian Army to reach Gujarat under Operation Sahayta.
No less than 70 civil trucks had been requisitioned for the regiment to be transported to Bhachau, the town closest to the epicentre of the earthquake. Bhachau is 80 kilometres from Bhuj.
The army vehicles of the Regiment under the command of Captain (later Colonel) Subhash Raina, the adjutant of the regiment, moved by road from Bathinda to Bhachau and linked up with the regiment four days later.
By 5.30 pm, the Triplites had reached Bhachau, less than five hours after having been sounded in Bathinda for rescue and relief. We drove into a nightmarish landscape of destroyed buildings, their iron girders sticking out through the masonry like fossils of prehistoric monsters. All around were funeral pyres, adding to the hellish aspect of the scene.
Wasting no time, the regiment disembarked from the civil trucks. Divided into 10 sub-task forces of platoon strength (about 50 men), each commanded by an officer, we swung into action. Bhachau had to be entered on foot since all the roads of the town were covered with debris and no vehicular movement was possible.
An administrative detachment of the regiment soon located some open ground and pitched tents while the men engaged in the rescue and relief operation. True to the motto of the Indian Army, the regiment worked around the clock without any rest.
In the ensuing period of over a month that the regiment was in Bhachau, many people were rescued and mortal remains of the unfortunate ones retrieved. The regiment also restored water supply and electricity to Bhachau apart from running non-stop langars where food was cooked and distributed. Precariously inclined buildings were demolished so that no further damage could be caused.
The major focus of the first week was rescuing those still alive but trapped inside and under destroyed buildings and retrieving the bodies for last rites. A couple of incidents remain etched in my memory. On 28 January 28just a couple of days after the Triplites had reached Bhachau, a person came running to the team led by Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Arun Dahiya with the request that the mortal remains of his mother be retrieved from their collapsed house.
Captain Dahiya and a few jawans immediately followed the man to his house. The ground floor of the house had been completely crushed by the above two floors. The mortal remains of the man's mother lay in a crushed portion of the ground floor. Using drilling machines, a hole was created from the top of the debris to the ground floor. Captain Dahiya slid inside this cavity, strapped the body to his back and crawled back up. The man fell at the feet of the captain, and wept and wept.
On 1 February the team of Captain (later Colonel) AK Rohankar rescued a teenager from the wreck of a triple-storey building. No sooner was this youngster taken out from the debris that he wobbled to attention and saluted, singing the national anthem out loud as he did so. Everyone's eyes turned moist and a long round of applause followed. This 16-year-old was the last person rescued alive, not just by the Triplites but by any rescue and relief agency, in all of Gujarat.
Road clearance was done and relief material distributed. Shelter camps were set up and operated for residents as almost every home in Bhachau was damaged or destroyed. Schools were started later and activities for children organised to divert their minds form the trauma they all had seen first-hand.
The Area of Responsibility (AOR) of the Regiment covered the entire taluka of Bhachau, reaching out to every village and house.
On 28 February, after 33 days of round-the-clock operations, 111 Engineer Regiment was de-inducted from Op Sahayta. We were bone-tired, down to the last man, but satisfied at having done the best we could for our countrymen in need.
In 2012, I had an opportunity to visit Bhachau. The town seemed reborn, and the sight of new buildings and happy, busy people brought tears of joy to my eyes. It was indeed overwhelming to see the spirit with which the town of Bhachau had bounced back.
To thank the army for the support in the tough and trying times during the earthquake, the residents of Bhachau have built a thanksgiving edifice at the entry of the town, at exactly the same spot where the regiment had disembarked from the civil trucks on 26 January.
The writer retired from the Corps of Engineers who is an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He is an MTech in Structures apart from being an MBA and an LLB. The views expressed are personal.