CHENNAI: The city-based group believed to have arranged the ill-fated trekking expedition to Kurangani Hills where 11 members were killed in a forest fire, today claimed the team had received an "entry pass" to proceed with their mission.
It also blamed local farmers for the fire that engulfed the area, killing some of the trekkers on a "women's trek to commemorate women's day."
Majority of the members were women, though there were male volunteers who accompanied them.
"We came to know that on Saturday, March 10, the group started off from Kurangani at the base and paid fees at the forest entry check-post who issued an entry pass," an 'update' put up on the website of 'chennai trekking club' (CTC) said.
It may be recalled the state government had said the trekkers had not obtained required permission for the expedition.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami had yesterday said: "without permission, they embarked on a trekking expedition.
Trekkers should climb hills only after taking the government's nod".
During the summer months of March, April and May permission to trek is not given as the high forest ranges are dry with the possibility of forest fires spreading fast, he had said in Salem.
In its 'update' today, the group said the trekking route from the base at Kurangani to Kollukumalai on top was a regular and a clear trail created by local villagers and trekkers.
On Saturday morning when the group started to trek, there was no sign of fire in the entire forest range and by evening it had reached Kollukumalai tea estate at the top and camped there, it said.
They started their descenet the next morning through the same trail they went up by and reached close to mid-point of the exit.
"As a normal seasonal cultivation practice, local farmers at the base burn grass during this season and on Sunday it seems they lit the grass at the base.
Due to an unusual low depression in the Bodi valley, there were unexpected and unprecedented strong winds on Sunday.
" "As a result, the fire swept across from the base of the hills and spread across the hill upwards. Some of the survivors told that there was very limited reaction time due to the fast spreading smoke," it said.
As soon as smoke was noticed the team proceeded on the downhill, away from the smoke but got blocked by fire in the opposite direction, it added.
On Sunday afternoon the group 'reached out' to the local guide who was with them, and he gave them 'accurate information' on the location of the group, it said.
"This critical information was immediately shared with the forest department along with participant details and helped in the search and rescue operations.
In the evening CTC" put together and sent an experienced team to Theni to provide on-ground support," the website added.
Two of the deceased, "experienced trekkers" Arun and Vibin had led the group, it said.
It further said there was "no organisational hierarchy in any of the activities or events organised by CTC."
Any trek organised by the club undergoes multiple approvals, while the participants "are carefully selected and disclaimers are obtained from" all of them.
"While starting the trek, it is also ensured that necessary permissions are obtained and the organisers carry the documents with them. As in this case, although we followed all the safety procedures and precautions, the team was overcome by fire," it said.
The group said that the incident was a "natural disaster" and mourned the death of every CTC and non CTC person struck by this 'tragedy.'
Meanwhile, a survivor of the forest fire today recalled her ordeal, saying she could come out alive only because she jumped into a 'valley' when the fire engulfed her group.
City-based Vijayalakshmi, one of the trekkers who took up the ill-fated expedition to the Kurangani Hills range in Western Ghats, said today that the fire spread very quickly when the group was on the move, catching most of them unaware.
Recalling the trek on Saturday, she said the members of the expedition noticed smoke on the hills around 2 PM when they stopped for lunch even as they decided to proceed on a 'different trail'.
"After going some distance, we spotted fire there also and within two minutes it started spreading all over," she told reporters here.
With no escape route in sight, all she and another girl could spot was a "valley-like" formation and they immediately jumped there to avoid the fire, she said even as others "fell" on them but sustained burns.
"There was a small valley like thing. I and another girl jumped into it," she said, adding, they did not suffer any major injuries even as "fire stopped in some time."