Neten Dorji | Lhuentse

Dechen Pelden, 28, and her husband in Ungar village in Lhuentse heard a rumbling sound and the earth beneath them shake while they were preparing dinner on Thursday at around 7.40pm. Fearing something was wrong, they came out to check.

Just below them lived workers and families of Druk Hydro Energy Limited, a subsidiary company of DGPC, and a de-suup. They were washed away by the sudden burst at the residential area next to the worksite at Ungar village, according to a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office.

They saw the flash flood crash through the camps with muck, trees, and boulders. Without looking back, they climbed away from home up the slippery narrow footpath. It had been raining that evening.

“I thought we were going to die when I heard the rumbling of the boulders crashing down the valley. I was shocked,” said Dechen Pelden.

Still in shock, Dechen yesterday said she had never seen a disaster of such magnitude and scale.

When day broke yesterday, a rescue team of local de-suups, workers of Rigsar Construction and local leaders saw the aftermath of the disaster and watched the extent of damage the flood left behind in disbelief. The flood swept away the entire camps and buried several vehicles including excavators.

The team laboured through the debris and muck and recovered six bodies. “We are yet to find 17 bodies,” said an official. “We will continue searching for missing bodies tomorrow.”

Sources said that of the 23 reported missing, one was a de-suup and five were DGPC staff. The rest were the family members of the staff.

A local resident said there were family members, siblings,  friends and even a teacher who came there on vacation. “Most of them were back home after work and may be resting at the camp.”

He said that a de-suup escaped since they were called for a meeting.  “The flood lasted for about 20 minutes.”

Tashi Gyeltshen, 30, a resident, said that the weather was clear for three days, and that only on Thursday evening it was raining. “I suspect heavy rainfall at high mountains could be the cause of floods,” he said. “It is the first time we have experienced such a disaster in our village.”

An official who was on leave escaped. “It will be difficult to work at the same site since all of my friends were washed away while I was on leave,” he said.

Ungar Chiwog Tshogpa, Tashi Namgay said that the flash flood also damaged rice fields and killed about 10 cattles which were along the stream.

His Royal Highness Gyaltshab Jigme Dorji Wangchuck visited the flash flood site. The Prime Minister and DGPC’s Managing Director also arrived at the site towards evening and assessed the area.

The cause of the flash flood is yet to be ascertained.

The rescue team was joined by more than 100 people including personnel from armed forces, forestry officials, de-suups, disaster management, workers from Rigsar Construction company and people from the gewog. Additional manpower trained in search and rescue from various hydropower plants are expected to join the team.

Meanwhile, three individuals who sustained injuries are in stable condition, according to the press release from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Under the close guidance and support of the Office of Gyalpoi Zimpon, the search, rescue and coordination efforts are underway to make the most out of the pressing time, the press release stated. “Prayer ceremonies are being held alongside. Some of the retrieved bodies are being moved to respective home districts, as family members wished.”

The press release also stated that hydropower project components were intact and some works have resumed.

A team led by DGPC’s Managing Director Dasho Chewang Rinzin will also hike up the stream to determine the breakage point and trace other factors that led to the flood. A preliminary survey was also carried out by hydromet officials today.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, who is in Lhuentse, said the devastating flashflood presented one of the biggest loss of lives and properties in recent memory, and shook the core of the nation.

“The tragedy is anything but comprehensible for the family, but I draw motivation from every Bhutanese who is feeling the loss and offering strength to the loved ones,” Lyonchhen said. “I thank you and everyone working hard on the ground for showing us hope and room of possibilities.”