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Rediff.com  » News » AFS Carnic base commander welcomes IAF chief in vest, pyjamas, chappal

AFS Carnic base commander welcomes IAF chief in vest, pyjamas, chappal

By Amitabha Roychowdhury in Car Nicobar
December 28, 2004 20:46 IST
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"In my 34 years of service, I have never seen an IAF base commander receive his chief dressed in a vest, pyjamas and chappal. He (Bandopadhyay) has nothing left," an emotionally charged Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy said about his visit to Air Force Station Carnic.

Completely ravaged concrete buildings, uprooted trees, cracks on the runway, a tilted Air Traffic Control tower and an open gate to nowhere.

This is what remains of the strategic IAF air base that bore the brunt of Sunday's tsunamis, which ploughed through it, tearing apart whatever came in its way and washing away whatever was left behind.

The toll at this base, which was hit by the 'Biblical' wall of water, was 27 confirmed dead and over 80 IAF personnel and their family members missing, with officials saying there was almost no possibility of their survival now.

On the bright Sunday morning, as rumblings of what was assumed to be tremors began and buildings shook as if the Earth was splitting up, people ran out of their houses. But outside, they saw the sea swelling like a monster.

"It was a wall of water, 10 to 15 metres high, rushing towards us at a very high speed," said Base Commander Group Captain V V Bandopadhyay. The speed was later estimated at between 500 and 800 km per hour.

The water crashed onto the land and surged ahead. The crowd of IAF personnel, their family members ran towards the airport.

"Head for the middle-mark of the runway (the highest point on the island)," Bandopadhyay shouted to the fleeing people. He took some women and children in his car, but before he could get any further, the approaching tide overtook him.

Bandopadhyay then asked the children and women to get out of the car and run. That was his last instruction before he was swept off his feet by the water and lost consciousness.

He woke up to find most of the known faces missing.

Those who had not come out of their houses, which were slammed by the tidal waves, were washed away. It spared no one -- children or their mothers, the aged or the youth.

The surging waters had run across the base. Not a single pucca building was standing when this reporter visited the scene of devastation. A fuel tanker truck had been lifted from one side of the runway and thrown across on the other side.

Bandopadhyay received Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, who visited the place on Monday along with United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, but his condition stunned the visitors.

"In my 34 years of service, I have never seen an IAF base commander receive his chief dressed in a vest, pyjamas and chappal. He (Bandopadhyay) has nothing left," an emotionally charged Krishnaswamy said later.

The scene was no different in the civilian areas of Car Nicobar. All the five tribal villages were washed away. The survivors had taken shelter in the dense rain forests, under banana plantations and coconut trees.

Among the confirmed dead was Car Nicobar's Chief Judicial Magistrate S K Joshi, the island's Deputy Commissioner G C Joshi said.

As most of the Nicobari and Shompen tribals are Christians, they had celebrated Christmas. The next day, they lost everything.

This correspondent saw some decomposed bodies lying on the beaches, the passage to which were blocked by fallen trees and electric poles.

Hundreds of non-tribals, primarily settlers from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, had taken shelter in the open area outside a school building in the heart of the island, Gandhi Circle.

Everyone wanted drinking water, food, medicines and electricity, in that order of priority.

While officials said the toll in Car Nicobar Island, considering that all the five villages and the IAF base had been destroyed, could be between 2,500 and 3,000. Locals claimed it could be as high as 8-10,000.

It was difficult to confirm the figures, as the 25,000-odd population of the island was spread all over the dense rain forests and beaches.

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Amitabha Roychowdhury in Car Nicobar
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