In the wake of tragedy, a JCB driver kept his nerves intact to excavate 15 bodies from the fateful Laden house. Saima Bhat reports the heroics of Rasik Ahmad Magrey who trekked through rugged terrains on his beasty machine to answer an unlikely distress call
On the intervening night of March 29 and 30, at around 1 AM, Rasik Ahmad Magrey, 27, a JCB operator by profession received a panicky call on his cell phone. It was from the local police station Chadoora. Within an hour Magrey along with his JCB was standing outside the police station along with 15 other excavators from nearby areas.
The panicky officer told them that there has been a tragedy in remote Laden village. “There has been a mudslide in Laden area, in which a number of houses got buried. Around 16 members of two families are buried in the slide. We have to get them out.”
Keeping in view the non connectivity of road, where locals have to trek for at least 3 kilometers from the last motorable road it was impossible to reach the village along with an excavator. Magrey says, “From that last road, all other JCB drivers refused to move forward.”
“At around 3 AM of Monday I, along with the rescue team of police started our journey through the sloppy trek for Karewa’s of Laden. Deep in my heart it felt like I am not going to return alive. Then I called my parents, as if I was talking to them for the last time. They prayed for my safety and I moved forward.” he said.
On way to Laden, which is around 15 kms away from Chadoora, Magrey was thinking about the families, whom he was going to ‘save’. “I had a notion that it is a forest area and most likely the collapsed houses must not be concrete. So, may be the members of those families must be alive. What if my effort could save their life?” with all these things going in mind, Magrey moved ahead.
When Magrey reached at the spot, it was 1 PM and the rescue operation was already started by locals, state police and army personnel. The mud heaps of about 15 feet high had settled so silently as if nothing had happened.
The operation of extracting bodies continued amid heavy rains. On the first day rescue operation started from 1 PM and it continued till 3 AM of Tuesday when 15 bodies were recovered from debris of the mudslide.
All the victims belonged to two families who after the rains on March 29 decided to stay together. Mohammad Shabaan and his four family members including the three week old baby took refuge in the house of their neighbor, Ghulam Nabi Hajam considering the latter’s house comparatively safer from his own. However, fate had something else in store for the two families as the house was buried into earth, leaving no trace of the two storied building.
The residents said it was around midnight they were awakened by a sudden thud and shaking of earth. As they came out of their beds they saw cracks had developed in some houses. However, they were shocked to see Hajam’s house completely vanished.
Hundreds of people from the nearby villages gathered at the spot waiting for some miracle to happen so that people under the debris are brought out alive. But chances of any survivors were dashed when the rescuers pulled out 15 bodies out from the debris.
The bodies include three weeks old baby, who was not even named. He was found in the lap of his mother Ruksana. After the bodies were recovered the local imam named the three week old baby Muhammad Aslam. One body, of 6 to 10 years old boy was still missing.
“I worked tirelessly without any break. We all were without any food and water. Nothing was available there, not even water. But by 3 AM, my body refused to work; my eyes were not able to see anything. So I asked the SHO I can’t work anymore, who decided to call it a day and we trekked down to the police station where we reached at 4:30 AM. He managed to get some food but I slept only after having water.”
It was only after a sleep of 4 hours; the team woke up and went back for the rescue operation as one body was still missing. At around 10 AM of Tuesday the team reached on the spot again and started with their operation till 6 PM.
But the body was still missing. On this day, Magrey says continuous rains hampered their work. “I had to dig mud with care because a simple mistake could have given scratch on any dead person’s body.”
On third day, Wednesday, the rescue operation started again at 10 AM and continued till 10 PM. But the last body was not recovered. On Thursday Magrey says they reached at the plinth of those houses but still they couldn’t find the body of missing boy.
“I am restless till the body of that boy is found. We are doing what can be done but it is all up to Allah now,” says Magrey. On Thursday, the team was going to shift back the mud mounts back to look for the boy. At the same time he said he was upset with the approach of locals, who had come to the area just to pass their day. “Out of the thousands of people at the spot, 80 per cent people had kept their mobile phones focused on that how bodies will be extracted and only 20 percent of them were helping us.”
On Friday, the operation started again but this time it was without any excavating machine. Arshid Khan, SHO Chadoora said, “The JCB is non functional now as it has suffered huge losses and no other driver agrees to trek up to this place. We have started the operation manually now but this way it is going to take 10-12 days to search through the huge mud mounds.”
Meanwhile he adds, “It was not possible to recover all bodies on the very first day without the help of excavator. It was only because of this driver and his two other companions, that we could manage it so fast. They worked tirelessly. And now we are helpless without them.”
The victim families now have only one survivor among the 12 member family, Shabir Ahmad Hajam, son of Ghulam Nabi Hajam who was not in the village on the fateful night. He is in a state of shock.
On that day, he was supposed to be a part of a family get-together where they were going to fix the date of marriage for the eldest son and two daughters of the family.
Due to heavy rains, Shabir could not reach his home and he stayed back at a relative’s home in a neighboring hamlet.
Shabir runs a barber shop at Nowgam on the outskirts of Srinagar and was going to return home after two months. But neither his home nor his family members are there anymore.