When Kerala was struggling in the torrential rains and flash floods with thousands of lives at risk, the fishermen of Thiruvananthapuram's Valiyaveli coast were the first to respond. Answering the State's distress call, hundreds set out to save lives at risk in places over 100 km away from their homes. Generations divide 60-year-old Antony Silva and 23-year-old Thomas Terry, but they say there was no difference of opinions over what to do and all able men across all age groups were willing to go expecting nothing in return. Humanity triumphed when these brave men generously denied the CM's financial reward. Excerpts
When did you join the rescue operations?
Silva: We left Valiyaveli in the early hours of 17 August Friday and returned by nightfall on 19 August Sunday. We were asked to reach Adoor (Alappuzha district) from where further instructions were to be given. But we were asked to divert midway as situation worsened and the trucks were split. (Antony joined ops in Thumpamon region of Adoor and Thomas in Malakkara).
Who was in charge of coordination?
Silva: The Sub-Inspector arranged for the trucks including mine to carry the boats and told us that the Panchayat members and police officers in Panthalam will guide us further on our arrival. Drivers were asked to go as fast as possible and traffic was cleared in major points. We were stationed at the St. John's HSS in Adoor.
Thomas: The police officers deserve full credit for their dedication. CI Anil accompanied us throughout the mission and co-ordinated at those places where people were stranded and needed help. They were fast and accurate.
Did you receive any special training or drills before being sent to the mission area?
Silva: Nothing. The officers knew no training is above our experience of dealing with the mighty sea on a daily basis. Experience was our weapon, which trainer can best that?
But you were absolutely alien to the area, didn't this create any barriers?
Silva: All the mechanic boats which were set out for the rescue had police personnel and locals who knew the area well. But after sunset, these locals would disagree to leave the land. Even with the policemen, we needed long poles to lunge through the water ahead of us at places, and yes, we got lost for a couple of hours with four rescued girls from Punjab onbaord on Saturday.
Did you work in association with the Navy at any point?
Thomas: We were deployed at pockets where no Navy units were present.
ALSO READ | Alappad fishers turn heroes in Chengannur
How hard was it to work in an area which was among the worst hit in the whole state?
Thomas: Many of our boats were badly damaged during the operations. We rescued 40 people who were trapped in a house near Thiruvalla. Will you believe me if I say we rammed into a concrete bridge to reach this place? My brother's boat was badly damaged in the process. On our way back, the tide was so strong that the engine-powered boat had to be roped out of the water. This is just one among the many instances. That's how hard it was.
Did you come across anyone who disagreed to board the boat but asked for supplies instead?
Thomas: Yes, and it was disheartening. So much effort and time suddenly turned futile; imagine that. We used to pack food for ourselves since there was no guarantee when we would return to the base camp. There were instances when we had to just give our ration and move on. What else could we do? But we had to use force on some senior citizens who evidently wouldn't have survived.
Both: Absolutely none. The authorities, police, local residents ... all of them were very grateful to us.
ALSO READ | Fishermen come home to Tanur as heroes
How did your family react to your decision to join the ops?
Both: They were all very happy and in complete agreement. They have all experienced the horrors of natural calamities many times; who will understand their misery better than our families? Our women knew it in their hearts that the flood waters can't harm us.
How does it feel to be called 'Kerala's own Navy Force?'
Silva: We just played our role, we’re happy that we could save our brothers' lives. But everyone deserves applause. I am a diabetic and left without insulin, but the authorities made it available for me. We are ready to serve whenever this land needs our help.
Has the government started fixing the boats as promised?
Thomas: The SI has told us to get in touch with the police station to get it done.
Why have you declined CM's reward?