The Zai Whitaker column | What 2004 tragedy on Great Nicobar might show us about meeting coronavirus challenge
The mental and physical resources that enabled Saw Agu to survive the horrific experience of the 2004 tsunami are an inspiration to us all — perhaps even a metaphor for overcoming this coronavirus pandemic and its challenges.
Read part 1 of this column here.
Agu called out to his companions again and again, with whatever force was left in his body and through the excruciating pain. But there was no answer; their names would be added to the list of tsunami victims in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
The height of the fall from the peepal tree into the swirling tsunami waters had been at least 6 or 7 metres. He’d hurtled through the old-growth maze of twigs and branches which had bruised and gashed his body; and he realised that the searing pain was from a fracture on his right arm. That this was the extent of his injuries, was a miracle.
But other miracles would follow, adding Agu’s tsunami story to the chronicles of almost unbelievable human endurance and courage.
Struggling to free himself from the forest debris, gasping and swallowing the swirling, smelly water, Agu tried to find his bearings. But the world had changed. All around him was the fallen forest in a sea of water; and as he tried to orient himself another tidal wave pulled him under. Its brute force ripped the clothes off him, leaving him naked. The raging waters threw him against fallen trunks and branches and dunked him repeatedly in the stinking marsh. He managed to crawl to the one standing tree near him so he could use it as a crutch, stand up and survey the landscape. But it gave way and fell on him, causing further injury.
The main thing, the only thing, on his mind was that he had to stay afloat, keep his head above the water, breathe. He struggled towards a floating raft of tree logs, reached it, and gaining some “safety” and height, called out again with the strength left to him. He was able to sit on the logs, scan the landscape: Just water and debris, with the columns of the bridge jutting out in helpless surrender. The coast was gone. An eerie quiet surrounded him; no birds or insects, just the sound of water, lapping, swirling, rushing. Would there be another wave?
Then, through the pain and exhaustion, came a life-saving realisation from his vast fund of forest knowledge. The tree-raft he was sitting on had been part of a swatch of lowland forest adjoining the sea-bound Galathea River. He tried to keep his head clear, and used this clue to orient himself. It gave him a possible direction for the coast, and he knew that’s where he should head to. But for now, moving from the log raft was impossible. He had to stay put; his battered and bruised body and fractured arm needed rest.
Night came, and not a wink of sleep. In the morning light, he watched a turtle carcass float by; then a live turtle, a good reminder that there was still life around him. As the sun rose, it got hot and his thirst drove him to drink the smelly slush around him. He fell asleep for a while, woke up, drifted off again.
And thus the hours, then days, passed by. The dehydration and weakness caused him to drift into long semi-conscious spells with some alert times in between. He managed to keep track of the days, counting and remembering the number that had passed. He saw light aircraft and helicopters circling overhead, searching for survivors. But he was too weak by now to even think of a plan for alerting them. Sometimes, during an aerial sortie, he’d try to stand above the wall of debris and raise his good arm, but it was a useless action that drained him of the little energy he had left.
Sandflies tortured him during the day, mosquitoes at night. This was also the home of saltwater crocodiles and he saw several swimming or basking on the fallen trees. One night he saw a saltwater crocodile in the moonlight. It swam up to his log raft, circled. Agu looked around for a suitable branch to use as a weapon but luckily it decided to swim off and leave him alone. After a week, it rained and he was able to catch and drink the little that fell into his open mouth. But the rain also brought freezing nights.
And then there were no more helicopter sorties; they must have stopped looking for survivors and bodies. He plunged into the depths of despair. But hitting the bottom helped him rise. The catalyst was a water monitor lizard (Varanus salvator) which, tongue flicking, investigated his inert body to check if he was carrion. Agu willed his mind and body back into action. Using a small branch as a crutch for his wounded arm, he left his raft and swam to the next logjam. There, after a rest, a life-saving image came into his mind: a forest trail at the 35th kilometer, that led from the beach to the village of Shastri Nagar. A small stream ran alongside it. He had to orient himself accurately, and get there.
Stumbling, crawling, sometimes yelling out from the excruciating pain, frequently falling unconscious, he crawled onward and got to the shore. The beach was unrecognisable; but the stream still flowed, and he was able to quench his thirst for the first time in two weeks.
On 11 January, Day 16, crawling on all fours, Agu got to the outskirts of Shastri Nagar village. Spotting a pair of trousers in the muck, he put them on, using a fresh vine as a belt to keep them on his now skeletal body. [This was how Manish, co-author of this article and part of the ANET team, saw him later that day in Port Blair.] Further on, Agu met an old man he knew, but who didn’t recognise him. He took Agu home, gave him some daal roti, and led him to Shastri Nagar. Here the devastation was complete; devoid of life, with debris and shards from houses scattered everywhere.
Harry Andrews was then director of the Madras Crocodile Bank. He and Manish had managed to get to Port Blair from the mainland on hearing news of the disaster at the leatherback camp. They’d been desperately trying to organise an aerial search over Point 41, but naval aircraft were busy 24/7 with rescues, disaster surveys and reaching rations to stranded survivors.
By an extraordinary coincidence, this day, Day 16, was when they finally got permission from the Navy for an aerial search. Harry and the pilot circled the mouth of the Galathea and scanned the ravaged landscape for signs of life. And in a forest clearing above the water line, they saw people waving. The pilot landed nearby. Harry was delighted to see Agu sitting under a coconut tree, and heartbroken in the immediate knowledge that the others probably hadn’t made it. He explained to Agu that he would be taken to Port Blair. Harry and the pilot would continue the search for the others.
A chopper took Agu to Campbell Bay and from there to Port Blair on the next Navy Dornier shuttle flight. Manish and others from ANET received him and he was soon in INS Dhanvantari, the Amed Forces hospital at Minnie Bay. After his injuries healed and he gained some strength, he spent several months with his family in the Karen settlement of Webi on North Andaman, before returning to ANET. Ambika Tripathi’s legacy lives on and the leatherback research project continues through ANET, which is now under the wonderful conservation NGO, Dakshin Foundation.
The mental and physical resources that enabled Agu to survive this horrific experience are an inspiration to us all; perhaps even a metaphor for overcoming this coronavirus pandemic and its challenges. As to his abiding memory of it, I can only repeat his words when I said, “Agu, what horrors you lived through!”
“Yes,” he’d said, “I was so worried about where the others were, what was happening to them.”
Something to learn from this. Maybe a lot.
Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology
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