30 tourists drown in Kerala’s Thekkady lake

via PNS | Idukki published on September 30, 2009

At least 30 tourists died and 16 were feared missing when a boat carrying 76 persons capsized in the Thekkady lake in Idukki district of Kerala, known one of the hottest tourist destinations in South India, late Wednesday evening. The dead included two foreign travelers while most of the victims belonged to North India, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Among the dead, 18 were women and six children.

That the accident took place at a dangerous, deep spot in the lake deep in the jungle some four km away from the boat landing centre at Thekkady and that it had occurred late in the evening made rescue operations difficult. Rescue workers had been able to save 30 persons and to bring them to the boat landing centre by about 7.30 pm. Authorities feared that the toll could go up as several of those brought to the hospitals alive were in serious condition.

Preliminary reports said that the two-deck fibre boat Jalakanyaka of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, commissioned just a month ago, had overturned in the lake when the all the passengers gathered on one side of the boat to see a herd of elephants on the bank. Many of the passengers saved themselves by jumping off the upper deck when the boat capsized. The accident occurred when the boat, which left the boat landing centre by 4.30 pm, was returning from the trip.

Among the victims identified were four from Tamil Nadu, Pradeepkumar Sen (55) and Anu Bandari (20) from Kolkata and Alka (18) from Delhi. The KTDC had issued tickets to 74 tourists and the boat was also carrying the driver and caretaker.

The Government opened control rooms in Kumily and Thiruvananthapuram, allocating a toll free phone number 1070 and another, 0471-2331403, for inquiries about the accident. Union Minister of State for Railways informed that arrangements for journey had been made for the relatives of the victims to Idukki.

The accident occurred at a spot in the jungle called Manakkavala, which was only some distance away from the confluence of rivers Mullaiyar and Periyar, and this was one of the reasons for the high death toll. Local residents said possibilities of undercurrent were strong due to the confluence and also because the spot was near the vent through which Tamil Nadu was drawing water from the Mullaperiyar reservoir.

An advanced light helicopter of the Indian Navy joined the search and rescue operation by about 8.30 pm, by which time the other operations were facing difficulty due to the thick darkness at the spot of the accident and lack of facilities for communication. A team of about 40 divers from the Indian Navy also had left Kochi for Thekkady by about 6.30 pm. However, rescue operations were continuing even late in the night, based at a mid-way camp of the Kerala Forest Department near Manakkavala.

The Kerala Government ordered an inquiry into the accident. Local residents said that Thekkady had never had facilities to launch rescue operations in an emergency. There were also doubts whether the boat, despite the fact that it was a new one, had the mandatory safety measures. Also, the office of the KTDC had never had a system of keeping records of identity of the visitors undertaking the boat ride in the lake, which was why the identities of the victims of Wednesday’s accident could not be known immediately.

For any boat ride on the Periyar lake, there was a standing instruction that the passengers should not get up from their seats while on the ride. This instruction could not have been communicated to all the passengers as they spoke different languages. That the lake at the spot was 60 feet to 100 feet deep also heightened the gravity. The people in the boats behind were able to draw the ill-fated boat to the bank and this helped in the rescue operations,

One Mrs Pankaj from Mumbai, a survivor who along with her husband saved three lives, noted that there were no life-guards, life jackets or any other safety measures on the boat. When she had brought this to the notice of the KTDC caretaker on the boat, he replied that there had been no accident in the past two decades in Thekkady, she said.

Rescue work was going on, though not in full measure, even late at night but this was also being hampered by the cold, mist, darkness and rain. The bodies of the victims were kept at four hospitals, including the major private Periyar Hospital, in Kumily town.

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