"I told them not to rescue me. There's no point in staying alive. At 33 years, my life is over," Madhulata tells her visitors at the Rajahmundry Government General Hospital, pausing to weep in between sentences. Madhulata had just been taken to the mortuary to see the body of her 12-year-old daughter Hasini, who lost her life in the Godavari boat tragedy on Sunday. Her cries ring across the hospital room, as she weeps for her child.
Madhulata’s husband, Subramanyam, is one of the 24 people still missing, most of whom are presumed to be dead.
A short, fun family holiday to Bhadrachalam has now ended in Madhulata losing her only child, and possibly her husband, to the violent waters of the Godavari.
At the hospital are 17 other survivors of the accident, who were brought here from Devipatnam around midnight on Sunday. Earlier in the day, they had all been on a boat called the Royal Vashishta, which had capsized while carrying 61 people, near Kachuluru village of Devipatnam mandal in East Godavari district.
Less than 24 hours have passed since the disaster. Most of the survivors are steeped in trauma – of identifying the bodies with the fear of the worst.
A Fun Holiday Gone Horribly Wrong
“My colleagues and I had been planning the trip for a while. Now I have lost two of my close friends. I don't know when this feeling of depression will stop," says Jyoti Babu, a carpenter in his 20s, who had gone on the boat ride with four of his friends who all work in carpentry or construction.
The boat was filled with similar groups of friends and family, who were looking to have a good time on the picturesque boat ride in the Godavari through the Papikondalu (Papi hills) to Bhadrachalam.
According to the survivors, the boat left from the Gandi Pochamma temple sometime after 11 am. Within a few minutes, they were instructed by the boat crew to put on their life jackets, as they were approaching a police station. “They didn’t tell us how to wear them, how to tighten the belt properly, etc. The police then did a check, took photos and let the boat go ahead,” says Jyoti Babu.
Survivors say that most of them soon removed their jackets and placed them under their chairs, unable to bear the humidity, but the crew never took the life jackets seriously. "Even the few people wearing it had just slipped them on loosely," Jyoti Babu says.
As passengers moved to the top deck, where a performance area and a sun shelter had been set up, the boat shook once even in the beginning of the journey, Jyoti Babu claims, but the crew kept assuring passengers that the driver would be careful, in spite of overloading. "The entertainment staff explicitly said that we were approaching waters of dangerous depth, but the driver would be careful," he says.
The entertainment staff were singing and dancing to film songs in the performance area, with some passengers joining in, says Prabhakar, a 47-year-old railways employee from Kazipet in Warangal, who had been planning the trip with his group of friends for months.
“As we neared Kachuluru, they just told us to go back to our seats and not to move, as it was a dangerous area. Our life jackets were still under our chairs,” Prabhakar says, recalling the exact moment of the accident. “The boat started to tilt to our side.
Since the chairs were not fixed to the deck floor, the chair from the other end started tumbling down. Then the people also began to fall on us," he says. He expected this to be a small tremor, like earlier, and waited for the boat to come back to its position. "Slowly, water started to enter through the railing and I realised this was really happening, the boat was capsizing," he recalls.
Madhulata also recalls how everything happened so quickly, there was no time to react. "It took less than a minute for the boat to topple. Within the next two minutes, most of the people had drowned," she says.
Rescue for a Fortunate Few
As the boat started to drown, many passengers tried to hold on to the railing, as the unused orange life jackets began to float all around them.
Some of them, like Prabhakar and Jyoti Babu, tried to throw the life jackets to others around them, so they could hold on to them and try to stay afloat.
“The boat was being pulled into a whirlpool. If we stayed there, even the life jacket would have been of no help, so I swam away from the whirlpool, holding onto the jacket,” Jyoti Babu says.
He says they were lucky that the accident happened at a place where they were visible to the fishermen from Tutukunta, who instantly arrived in their fishing boats to rescue people who had tried to swim to safety. "They did multiple trips to try and rescue as many people as they could, almost everyone who has survived owes their life to the fishing community there," says Prabhakar.
Prabhakar's friend Suresh, who tried to save another friend Avinash, held onto him until the fishing boat arrived. But only after hauling his friend on to the boat did Suresh realise that his friend had already breathed his last.
The fishermen, who knew the river in those parts inside out, told the survivors that the driver must have been really inexperienced to have taken the boat so close to the whirlpool.
"They told us that the location of the countercurrent is commonly known, and boats are usually directed along the edge of the river to avoid going too close to the vortex,” Jyoti Babu says.
Prabhakar says the survivors reached Tutukunta around 1.40 pm, which means the accident might have occurred just a few minutes earlier, around 1.15 pm. About a half hour later, an Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) mobile medical boat arrived at Tutukunta, having spotted the trail of floating life jackets. The survivor group was then taken to a medical camp in Rampachodavaram, where they were provided first aid, before being moved to the Rajahmundry GGH.
Sixteen men and two women survivors were brought to the Rajahmundry GGH. Most of them do not have any visible injuries, except a couple of people who've had minor fractures. One man, who was travelling with his wife, friend and friend's wife, and is the lone survivor of his group as of now, has been sent to the ICU.
But the trauma haunting the survivors almost has a physical form of its own. While some people cope with tears, some are frozen in a state of numbness even as they recount their stories to visiting politicians and reporters.
Prabhakar, who was the only survivor in the ward who could speak without visible emotional scars, says that he had gotten used to speaking to the media since yesterday, as that was the only way he could think of communicating to his family that he was safe, having lost his phone in the accident and being unable to recall any phone numbers.
There is anger and resentment among the survivors that they're not sure whom to direct to: the allegedly inexperienced boat driver, the government departments who failed to stop the unlicensed boat, or the police for not ensuring implementation of safety measures.
The state government has announced an ex gratia of Rs 10 lakh for families of those who've died in the accident. But as of now, there seems to be no cure in sight for the psychological impact that the incident has had on survivors.
(This story was originally published by The News Minute and has been republished here with permission.)
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