Theni: Ten of the 39 trekkers who were trapped in Sunday’s raging forest fire deep in Kurangani hills reserve near Theni in Tamil Nadu have died.
The people who died in the fire includes four women, four men and a child. Out of 27 people who have been rescued 10 of them have minor injuries, while 8 of them have serious injuries.
Thirty of the trekkers, mostly students, have been rescued and were rushed to a government hospital. The nine trekkers died of burn injuries. Search and rescue operations for the other missing trekkers are on.
The fire broke out in Tamil Nadu's Theni district while a Chennai-based trekking club, which had 25 women and 3 children, had organised the expedition from Kurangani to Bodi in the Western Ghats. The group was trapped in the raging fire on their way back on Sunday.
The trekkers – that included a group of 27 people from Chennai and a batch of 12 from Erode and Tirupur - were on their way back from a trek to the Kurangani hills, when they got caught in the fire.
The groups started the trek on Friday night and reached the Kerala side of the forest by Saturday. They started the trek from Kurangani on the Tamil Nadu border on Sunday morning. They were supposed to reach Bodi by evening and travel back to Chennai from Theni.
However, by afternoon the trekkers, mostly from Chennai, Tirupur and Erode, were caught in the forest fire.
The Air Force has been pressed into service for rescue operations.
With little or no communication facilities in the remote woods, due to lack of mobile phone towers, information was hard to get. However, tribals and some local villagers rushing in to volunteer help have been providing invaluable support to the rescue teams that took time to reach the spot braving the fire.
First reports, obtained from video shots from mobiles used by some local rescuers, showed the victims, many of them girls, in great pain and crying for water. Some of them had their dresses in tatters and burnt, bodies badly burnt and bruised. They were terrible visuals.
"Forest officials could be at fault. They should have either stopped these people from going in, considering there have been sporadic and widespread forest fire during the last few days in the region," said an official involved in the tough rescue operation, requesting anonymity.
The thick smoke, heat from the high flames and poor visibility post-sunset made the rescue operations difficult even as more help was expected, thanks to the instructions from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman to the IAF and also the steps taken by Chief Minister K Palanisamy.
"15 people have been rescued from the fire so far. All rescued have been admitted to Bodinayyakanur government hospital for treatment. Special medical teams have been sent to Bodinayyakanur hospital," Health Minister C Vijayabhaskar wrote on his official Twitter page.
Sources said some of the rescued have suffered serious burn injuries.
The news broke a little after 5 pm on Sunday when Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman took to Twitter to announce that IAF helicopters will join the operations to rescue those caught in the fire.
State fire services sources said they got information from one of the trekking members at around 3 pm and they pressed several teams into rescue mission immediately.
Videos and photos shared on social networking sites showed how tough it would have been for the rescuers to bring the people, stuck amid the difficult hillside and the raging flames, to safety due to the tough terrain.
The videos also narrated the harrowing tales of those rescued and brought to hospitals. Since the fire took place in an area where the mobile network is not good, getting information proved to be very tough for both the officials and media.
A senior district forest official said personnel from the Forest Department were assisting the rescue team in saving the people from the spot.
Medical staff that waited in ambulances on foothills administered first aid to the girls rescued from forest fire before shifting them to near-by hospitals. Theni collector Mariam Pallavi Baldev visited the rescued women at hospitals and assured them of all help.
Police said the students from Coimbatore and Erode were taking training in Kurangai-Kozhuku Hill area when the fire suddenly broke out around noon. District Superintendent of Police V Baskaran and revenue and forest officials were taking steps to rescue the students from the trapped site.
Officials said the Defence Minister told the District collector to expedite the rescue operations in coordination with the other department officials including, the Air Force. Sources said it is the forest fire season in the dry Western Ghats, especially in the Theni and Palani hills and the forest department does not allow any trekking anywhere along the ghats.