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'There was no road to escape'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai
Last updated on: July 29, 2005 22:02 IST
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For A Kamraj Nadar and Perumal Devendran, residents of Nehru Nagar slum in Juhu in north-western Mumbai, the tsunami striking their native Tamil Nadu last December was a distant memory.

But on Thursday night, a mere rumour about a tsunami hitting the area stoked their subconscious fear and drove them into the streets.

By the time the rumour subsided, thanks to quick work on the part of the administration which assured the residents that it was just that, a rumour, 18 people were killed in stampede and dozens were injured.

Terrible Tuesday: Mumbai copes with a calamity

The police have detained 18 people who have a criminal record.

The motive for starting the rumour, they say, could be robbery after the residents abandoned their homes.

"I had heard horror stories of the tsunami from my sister who lives in Chennai," said Nadar. "So when the rumour started that the tsunami had struck here, we just ran out. We didn't even stop to think that this could be just a rumour. I clearly remember some 15 people came running from nearby houses and started shouting 'Tsunami, tsunami'. We all ran out from our homes."

Concurs Devendran: "The weather bureau could not predict the tsunami in December last year. The weather bureau also could not predict the heavy rains this time. So when people started shouting tsunami we believed them."

"I took my six-month-old grandson in hand and started running away to a safer place. I didn't know what was happening, as I could only see hordes running," added Devendran.

Death toll in Maharashtra reaches 696

The identity of those who started the tsunami rumour remains a mystery.

"They were drunk people. No one knows who they are. It was pitch black and there was no electricity. Nobody saw them," says a resident.

Nehru Nagar

Nehru Nagar slum is located opposite the Mithibai and Narsee Monjee colleges in suburban Juhu, and is home to at least 50,000 people. Most of the residents are from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, with a sprinkling of native Maharashtrians.

The people most affected by Thursday's rumour were Tamilians, as it was in their pockets of Kamraj Chawl and Murugan Chawl the rumour originated.

The death toll tells its own story: of the 18 dead, 8 are Tamilians.

Nehru Nagar has two exit roads less than 10 feet wide.

"There was just no road to escape," says Arunasalam Mari whose uncle Muthuswamy Mariappan Devendra (75) was among those killed. "People kept running without seeing where, and therefore the stampede occurred. If there were more approach roads to our locality then this tragedy would have not occurred."

Mumbaikars risked lives to reach out

Asked why he ran out when he did not see any tsunami approaching his house, Mari said, "My relatives had died in the tsunami in Tamil Nadu. So I thought it had struck Mumbai too."

"I had heard of the tsunami only last year. So when everybody started shouting tsunami I could not even figure out what it meant," says Sumernath Gupta, another resident. "It was only when people explained to me that water from the Juhu beach is going to engulf all of us that I realised I had to run."

At Cooper Hospital

Dr B S Shinde and Dr S V Kachre of the nearby Cooper Hospital are busy counting the dead bodies from Mumbai's monsoon fury when the tsunami rumour struck.

Says Dr Kachre: "Till yesterday 112 people had died in our hospital. We thought the worse was over when this tragedy happened."

Adds Dr Shinde, "We had gone home after two tiring days of work when this news came and we had to rush back. When I reached here I saw hundreds of people shouting tsunami, tsunami and running helter-skelter. There were announcement on television by the government and the police that there was no threat of tsunami but the people were just not willing to believe them."

'Sir, where are the bodies?'

For the nearly 100 family members present in the hospital, what made the tragedy more acute was that a mere rumour had led to the loss of their dear ones.

Gopal Yadav, a casual labourer, says, "My son Dinesh Kumar (11) was a healthy child. He never fell sick. I just cannot believe he is dead."

Mohanlal Jaiswal bemoans that his 10-year-old daughter Anita succumbed right before his eyes.

"I was with her when the rumour started. We started running together but got separated. I tried my best to save her but could not. The crowd ran over her and she died in the stampede," sobs Jaiswal.

His wife, who also ran out with them, is alive.

"She was badly injured but is out of danger now. I don't know how we will come out of this tragedy," added Jaiswal.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai