Cloudburst at Amarnath camp: ‘Tents were right next to stream… No hope we would live’

“There was a deafening noise as the water rushed down. I felt helpless. I closed my eyes and left it to fate,” says Shiv Roshni, a 64-year-old Amarnath pilgrim from Delhi.

On Friday afternoon, Roshni had barely reached the cave shrine after a two-day trek and pony ride when a huge volume of water swept the tents set up for the pilgrims. Breaking down constantly at the Base Hospital in Baltal, the base camp for the Amarnath pilgrims on the Sonamarg-Amarnath axis, she said: “I still shiver when I think about it. There was no hope that I would survive. It was during the night that some policemen came and rescued us. I was then shifted here in a chopper.”

The authorities put the death toll from the flash flood at 17 on Saturday, with 44 injured. Over three dozen pilgrims are still untraceable, officials said.

“So far, we have had 17 casualties, including one today,” Director, Health, Kashmir Mushtaq Ahmad Rather told The Sunday Express. “We have received 38 injured here at the (Baltal) Base Hospital while six have been shifted to SKIMS in Srinagar. The patients here are stable and I have heard those at SKIMS are also stable. A few more are injured, who would be shifted.”

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Speaking to reporters, Director General, CRPF, Kuldeep SIngh said that two pilgrims who were buried under debris had been rescued.

On Saturday, the road from the Army’s heli-base to the Baltal base camp reverberated with ambulance sirens and the whirling of helicopters. As the choppers rushed the injured from the higher reaches to the base camp, the ambulances ferried them to Base Hospital — a 100-bed state of the art hospital equipped with X-ray machines, oxygen, ultrasound, pharmacy, and ICU beds — from where some of them were shifted to Srinagar for specialised treatment.

Roshni said she, her younger son and two neighbours had started their journey from Pahalgam on July 7. Tired as they reached near the cave shrine, she stopped at a tent. “It was set up right next to the stream. As the water came gushing down the stream, there was no hope of survival.”

As Roshni talked, news reached that her son and neighbours were safe and trekking down from the cave shrine towards the base camp. She broke down again.

Most of the tents that were washed away were located close to the stream or on its dry bed, eyewitnesses said. Sources said some concern had been raised regarding the location of the tents at one of the meetings of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). Officials were unavailable for comment on the matter.

In April, Union Information and Broadcasting Secretary Apurva Chandra said the Amarnath Yatra would be the biggest this year, with over six lakh pilgrims. While the SASB has stopped sharing figures of the pilgrims visiting the cave shrine — in the past, the government would provide daily numbers – official sources said 1,13,000 pilgrims had visited the cave shrine between June 30, when the Yatra started, till Saturday.

The Yatra, which stands suspended as of now following Friday’s incident, is being held after a gap of three years. It was cancelled mid-way in 2019, just before abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, and had to be cancelled the next two years due to Covid.

Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah Saturday called for a probe into the location of the tents for pilgrims. “It is for the first time (that tents were set up there). We hope Lt Governor Manoj Sinha will set up a commission on how it happened,” he said.

The survivors include Mrinal Dutt (58) and three others from Kolkata, who started their Yatra on Thursday from Chandanwari in Pahalgam. Dutt said they were taken by surprise. “We didn’t know what it was. We heard a roar and cries. Suddenly we saw water gushing towards us,” he said, recuperating from ‘chest trauma’ at the Base Hospital. Injured in the incident, Dutt said he was shifted on a pony to the Panjtarni Military Hospital. “They gave me first aid and shifted me here in a helicopter.”

On Saturday late afternoon, Dutt made his first contact home, when a local journalist provided him with his cellphone. “We are alive,” he told his daughter in Kolkata.

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Riyaz Ahmad, a pony wallah from Sitharan in Khag village of Budgam, said after their long trek, most pilgrims were tired and hence could not react quickly. “It was raining heavily and suddenly the water rushed down the stream. We shouted and asked people to move to safer places. But there was little time to react and the pilgrims were tired, they could hardly move.”

He had taken a pilgrim, a woman from Gujarat, from the Baltal base camp to the shrine, he said, and had no idea what had happened to her. “When we reached near the cave, she was tired and went inside the langar (community kitchen). I was waiting outside. It was then that the water gushed in and swept away the langar and many tents. I was pushed down, but I managed to get up and leap out of the water, but most of the pilgrims couldn’t,” Ahmad said.

J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha chaired a high-level meeting to review the rescue and relief operations, attended by top officials from the Army, police, Air Force and civil administration. Sinha urged the yatris to stay put in camps. “The administration is providing all the facilities for their comfortable stay. We are trying our best to restore the Yatra at the earliest,” he said.