A few people involved in the rescue share their story. Most refused to talk to Kuensel

Nima | Gelephu

The rumbling sound of the Maochhu is deafening. The shouts for ropes, instructions and suggestions coming from different directions are lost in the sound of the river that has just changed its course.

Five soldiers of the Royal Bhutan Army have readied to get into the water. Wearing life jackets and ropes tied around their waist. The water gets deeper and current stronger as the men wade across holding on to the ropes, one end tied to an excavator. Before they could reach the stranded men, four rescuers disappear in the muddy river. The rescue is now focused on the soldiers. Only one could be seen in the middle of water, donning a red lifejacket.

A few men had gotten on top of an excavator to guide the rescue operation. They shout for more ropes. They whistle and wave to signal for ropes. Time was running out as the water level kept rising. Chuma Kinzang Dorji, the only survivor, was brought to safety at around 6pm. It was learnt that he managed to loosen the rope and clung on a tree.

Along the banks, people have gathered to witness the rescue operation. From the middle of the river, the people stranded waved torchlight to indicate their location to the rescue teams.

Contractor Wangda who was among the first to attempt to get to the five stranded near the treatment plant said he shouted for ropes when the soldiers were washed away suddenly. He said he thought if one end of a rope could be secured on a tree, they could have moved forward. Wangda was in the excavator guiding the operator.

“It was difficult to pull back all of them who got under the water. They were not aware of the huge holes under the water,” he said. “The excavator was stuck there for almost two hours,” he said.

Wangda cannot remember much of the scene he witnessed. Officials called for additional excavators. It soon became dark hampering the rescue operation. More people gathered at the scene.

A contractor, Thinley Wangchuk, in the second excavator, reached the spot at around 5:30pm. He said only one excavator was trying to cross the river to save the five people. “I called for an additional excavator and there was another two within 30 minutes.”

He said that he led a group to search for the rescue members, following the rope to reach the soldiers submerged under the water. Other group led by army officials went to save the five stranded.

“It was difficult to untie the rope from the body. We had to remove the clothes first to untie the rope. We tried to resuscitate them by performing CPR, but it was too late.”

The team could recover the body only after about two hours after they went missing in the river. “It involved a big risk and I was nearly washed away in the process,” he said. Thinley Wangchuk added that by the time they recovered the second body, other five people stranded near the treatment plant were also brought to safety by 9pm.

Sarpang dzongdag Karma Galay said the team explored everything. “We were hopeful at some point of time and was into a desperate situation again. The rescue team nearly reached the stranded people,” he said.

The dzongdag added that the teams got divided and spare ropes brought from police and thromde had to be used to save other people stranded down the stream. “The additional ropes to pull the body from the water were bought and reached the spot within the shortest time,” he said. “We tried our best, every effort was made.”

Excavator operator, Anjan Rai who was awarded the National order of merit (silver) by His Majesty The King on July 23 said it started to fall dark and risky to try crossing the river. “There were people stranded on the other side. We had to push ourselves hard,” he said.

On June 21, at around 3:30pm, hearing that five people had been stranded, Dzongkhag and thromde officials, RBA, police, DeSuups and other volunteers started to gather near the Girls Football Academy from where the report of the flood was reached to officials.

The road leading to the water treatment plant and several crusher units at Maochhu was cut off at lower Shetikhari.

Kezang Minjur, who works at the water treatment plant, was returning to the plant when he noticed an unusual rise in the water level.

Two backhoe loaders tried and failed to cross the swollen river from near the football academy. The excavator tried to cross from the same spot later but had to move down the river to try crossing from another spot.

“The water was reaching the top part of the excavator and the excavator nearly tumbled in the middle of the water but we managed to avoid it somehow,” said Wangda.

Sharing his experience, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering wrote on his Facebook page that the scene that evening was a nightmare. “People stranded deep inside the flooded area with rapidly rising water level, their close family members seeing loved ones getting submerged from the other side. It was not easy,” he wrote. “We feel very deeply for the lives lost.”

Many Bhutanese questioned why helicopters were not used in rescuing the people. Lyonchhen shared that helicopters were not able to come to the rescue because of bad weather.  He wrote that the two choppers in Paro could not take off due to bad weather conditions. “We tried with heavy duty choppers from Indian army and that too failed due to bad weather conditions.”