The Indian Air Force's base on the Car Nicobar Island was devastated in the Tsunami five odd years ago from now, on December 26, 2004. One hundred and sixteen IAF officers and men, their wives and children died in the horrendous disaster. Little remained of the air base, which was established as India's southernmost defence post, a sentinel against the unseen forces lurking in the regions nearby. The morning of December 26, changed all that.
In true military spirit, the IAF personnel worked night and day to ensure that India's southernmost Air Force station in the Bay of Bengal was operational again, ‘Combat Fit’ to be precise, just three-and-a-half months after the unbalanced ocean, turned ferocious by man’s inhuman treatment to Mother Nature’s blessings, claimed 3,513 lives in Andaman and Nicobar reducing the base to a wasteland of rubble and corpses.
On April 14, 2005, the Car Nicobar Air Base resumed operations once again. The runway was repaired, navigational aids and the basic infrastructure was put in place. The operational capabilities of the station were back to normal and the station was once again ‘Combat Fit’.
There were no frills, no luxuries and there was every possibility that the officers would continue to fight extreme adversities like they had been doing those past three and a half months. The amenities were very rudimentary but they knew they were working in unusual circumstances 1,300 km from the Indian mainland where the geographical location and the destruction of infrastructure had torn life and affected communication.
Picked up from different air bases in India, they were sent to Car Nicobar immediately after the Tsunami to rebuild the air base from the dust.
Sergeant Y S Sinha, one of the few officers who were still posted at the Car Nicobar Air Base on a second extension until last year i.e. September, 2009, narrated some of his unforgettable experiences to me while I was at Car Nicobar during the Child Led Disaster Risk Reduction (CLDRR) project for the welfare of the Nicobarese tribe, sponsored by the NGO – ‘Save the Children’.
He said that for a first time visitor to the base, the sight could be shocking. The destruction was so overwhelming that just imagining what it must have looked like when the waters raged in on December 26, left you numb. In fact, the scale of the devastation on Car Nicobar Island became most evident only on entering the Air Base because en route all villages had been flattened reducing them to an empty ghost land with sinister boards reading 'Erstwhile Perka, Erstwhile Small Lalpathy, and Erstwhile Malacca.' The – ‘Erstwhile’, indicated where the villages and their inhabitants once stood and lived.
“In fact, the homes in those villages did not have much concrete and were made of wood, so they were completely washed away. Hence, only a few pillars could be seen in the debris, the rest had been flattened,” said Sergeant Sinha.
The Air Base, on the other end of the island, was a full-fledged helicopter station with a huge infrastructure. Around 700 staff and personnel lived there with their families. It had two schools, VIP guest houses for the Air Chief Marshal and other visiting dignitaries, a shopping complex and homes for the Station Commander, officers and airmen.
The concrete rubble, the partially destroyed structures and the 160 acres of land lost to water ingress here had to be seen to understand the quantum of destruction.
After clearing the debris for six months after the disaster, what remained was a chilling reminder of the tragedy. Cars lay in mangled heaps, homes seemed to have been blasted into unrecognizable shapes - second floors flung upside down, blackened trees lying in gigantic tangled piles. A refrigerator flung out of someone's kitchen was now lodged in the branches of a tree.
The author at the 45 feet tall, huge fuel tank lying in Malacca village, where it was thrown by the Tsunami from its original location a kilometer away within the Air Force Station’s premises at Car Nicobar. It was packed with fuel when the Tsunami had struck. Such dreadful was the impact of the Tsunami which was traveling at the speed of about 700 km per hour, the speed of a jetliner from the epicenter of the massive under-water earthquake.
The very first priority was to get the runway working for relief activity and the men made use of whatever came their way - even axes to chop the wood and manually pushed it off the runway.
The 9,000 feet runway originally measured around 3,000 feet when it was constructed by the Japanese during their occupation of the island between 1942 and 1945 during the Second World War. It was taken over by the Indian Air Force in 1956, post independence.
As Sergeant Sinha told me, about forty-five tons of epoxy was used to repair the runway. The repairs began everyday post 4 pm, after the flights for the day ended. The work went on through the night till 4 am. The epoxy needed three hours to dry and the flights resumed at around 7 am.
The Air Base lost 116 officers, men and family to the tsunami. Those who survived were immediately evacuated, given a month's leave and subsequently transferred to other stations. The base was no longer deemed a family station and new officers and men were sent to replace, rebuild and carry out the relief operation – ‘Operation Madad (help)’.
The officers and men got down to clearing the debris, disposing the bodies and spent all their waking hours bringing some semblance of order. The officers and men used to consume rice, dal and vegetables from a common kitchen. Pilots who flew down as part of the relief activity sometimes stayed on to work for a month or so and would feel sad about leaving. The first break from work came on January 16, 2005 when everyone went for a picnic.
At the peak of the relief effort, around 5,000 men were pressed into service. Around 10,000 residents were evacuated during ‘Operation Madad’ from the Car Nicobar Island. The IAF flew around 226 sorties till January 26, 2005.
As the crisis grew, Heroes were born!
Tributes to the Bravado of the Heroes of Indian Air Force!!!