DEHRADUN: At Reni village that is at the epicentre of the tragedy, Sandeep Nautiyal was lazing around on a bright and sunny Sunday when he heard a big roar from the hills. He looked around and spotted the horrible avalanche menacingly approaching at least 5 km away.
His first instinct was to rush out of his house and alert fellow villagers to flee, shouting ‘Bhago Bhago’. “Suddenly we heard a mix of a roar and a slight tremor. We saw this huge wave coming down the mountains washing off everything in its way,” said Nautiyal.
The village of 300-odd people located near the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve mostly has shepherds, farmers and workers.
“Landslides during monsoon are common, but this avalanche in winter is shocking,” said Shankar Rana, another resident.
At least five locals are feared missing and 180 sheep and goat were swept away by the flash floods.
The sudden flood in the middle of the day in the Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda rivers -- all intricately linked tributaries of the Ganga -- triggered widespread panic and large-scale devastation in the high mountain areas.
Two power projects, NTPC's Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project and the Rishi Ganga Hydel Project, were extensively damaged with scores of labourers trapped in tunnels as the waters came rushing in.
Sixteen men were rescued safely from a tunnel in the Tapovan project but about 125 were still missing.
As night fell in the ecologically fragile Himalayas and rescue work in the difficult to access areas became more difficult, there were fears they may be dead.
Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said seven bodies were recovered and at least 125 were missing.
Homes along the way were also swept away as the waters rushed down the mountainsides in a raging torrent.
There were fears of damage in human settlements downstream, including in heavily populated areas.
Many villages were evacuated and people taken to safer areas.
By evening it was believed that downstream areas were safe and the Central Water Commission (CWC) said there was no threat to neighbouring villages.
However, the water level in the Dhauli Ganga river surged up once again on Sunday night under the impact of the glacial burst during the day, creating panic among people living in the area.
The sudden surge in the water level in the Dhauli Ganga at around 8 pm prompted authorities to suspend rescue operations underway to extricate 30-35 people trapped in the debris clogging one of the tunnels at the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project.
The rescue efforts will be resumed on Monday morning, the GM of the project said.
Swirling waters of the river gurgling downwards are causing fear among people living in the area, he said late Sunday night.
A 13.2 MW small hydro project on the Rishi Ganga has swept away in the glacier burst but there was no danger of floods in downstream areas as the water level had been contained, the National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), headed by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, was informed at an emergency meeting in the national capital earlier in the day.
The NCMC was also told that people trapped in a project tunnel were rescued by the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) while efforts were on to rescue those trapped in another tunnel.
The operation was coordinated by the Army and the ITBP, an official spokesperson said.
Connectivity with some border posts was "totally restricted" due to a bridge collapsing near Reni village, close to the project site, an ITBP spokesperson said.
The border guarding force has units based in Joshimath, a short distance away, and managed to reach the spot within an hour of the first alert at about 10.45 am.
Several districts, including Pauri, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Haridwar and Dehradun, were put on high alert and forces of the ITBP and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) rushed in to help with the rescue and relief effort.
The personnel were seen rappelling down steep mountainsides to aid in the rescue work.
The India Meteorological Department informed that there is no rainfall warning in the region for the next two days.
As details of the disaster came in, President Ram Nath Kovind said he was deeply worried about the massive glacier burst at Joshimath, about 295 km from Dehradun.
"Praying for wellbeing and safety of people. Am confident that rescue and relief operations on the ground are progressing well," he tweeted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was constantly monitoring the situation in the state.
"India stands with Uttarakhand, prays for everyone's safety," he said.
Addressing a rally in West Bengal later in the day, he assured all help in fighting the calamity and said he was in constant touch with the Uttarakhand chief minister and Home Minister Amit Shah on the rescue and relief efforts being carried out.
Shah also spoke to Rawat and assured him of all possible support to deal with the situation arising from the glacier burst and the resulting floods.
In a series of tweets in Hindi, Shah said teams of the NDRF were deployed for rescue and relief operations of the affected people while additional troops of the force were being airlifted from Delhi.
"I have spoken to Chief Minister @tsrawatbjp ji, DG ITBP and DG NDRF regarding the natural disaster in Uttarakhand. All the concerned officers are working on a war footing to secure the people. NDRF teams have left for rescue operations. Every possible help will be provided to 'Devbhoomi'," he said.
Shah said the central government is constantly monitoring the situation in the state.
"Some more teams of NDRF are being airlifted from Delhi and sent to Uttarakhand. We are constantly monitoring the situation there," he said.
A Home Ministry spokesperson said four NDRF teams (about 200 personnel) were airlifted to Dehradun and would head to Joshimath.
One column of the Engineering Task Force (ETF) of the Army, with all rescue equipment, has been deployed.
(With PTI Inputs)