A jewel in the Shivaliks is how the brochure describes the Timber Trail mountain resort near Parwanoo, 35 km from Chandigarh on the Shimla highway at a height of about 2,000 ft. The main attraction at the resort is the ride in a cable car to Timber Heights (5,000 ft) on a mountain top 1.8 km away. “Eight minutes of pure unadulterated excitement,” beckons the seductive brochure. But the excitement the Rs 35-ride generated last fortnight, was more like a descent into hell. At 3.52 p.m. on October 13,11 passengers boarded car ‘B’ for the eight-minute thrill along with the ropeway attendant, Ghulam Hussain.
As the trolley moved uphill, the tourists savoured every moment, absorbing the breathtaking view. As car ‘A’ passed them midway, a few metres from each other, passengers from both sides waved and shouted to each other. But as the trolley swung across the dizzying heights after a 45 degrees climb, there was a slight jerk. Unnerved, Malini Tandon, from Delhi, asked her brother, Debashis Khettry, what would happen if the trolley were to plunge into the valley below. “That would be the end of everything,” he joked. The attendant nodded and beckoned to Debashis to come closer to the door for a better view. A minute later, the trolley touched the far end, moved back a little-as it always did-before sliding forward to come to a dead stop. It was a little before 4 p.m. and Hussain, preparing for the exit, unlatched the door.
Then it happened. Instead of sliding forward, the trolley came hurtling down the rope tracks at breakneck speed. Hussain dropped down like a stone-he either fell out or jumped. Debashis too was swept out into the wilderness before the door slammed shut. As the trolley accelerated to about 280 km an hour, the overhead pulley wheels gave way, emitting fumes and fire. The frightened passengers, including a four-and-a-half-year old child, were tossed around. “The trolley was swinging like a pendulum and we thought it was the end,” recalled Chandigarh businessman Harit Bajaj. And then, with a jerk, the car swung wildly before coming to a stop.
Meanwhile, Harish Chander, who was operating the trolleys at the base control room, saw the “rocket” hurtling down and ran out, shouting to everyone to clear out. The 7-ft high hexagon-shaped car would have smashed the base to smithereens. But it got suspended in mid-air. Beneath was a clean drop of over 1,000 ft into the rocky Kaushalya rivulet. At the base, there was total chaos. Could the trolley fall into the valley? What if it slithered back? Travellers on the Chandigarh-Shimla highway stopped to ask what was happening. Relatives of some of the trapped persons learnt about the accident late in the evening and rushed to the resort. The owner, R.K. Garg, locked himself in a room to evade journalists.
Within the trolley, there were hysterics. “Where is Debashis?” Malini would moan every now and then. Her husband, Pankaj, was numb with terror. Gurmeet Kaur, from Jalalabad in Punjab, who was married only three days before, felt sick and vomitted repeatedly, even as her husband, Devinder, tried desperately to hide his own fear. Harit Bajaj was by now bleeding profusely in the face from glass splinters. His wife, Harmesh, son, Vishal, and cousin, Joideep, were with him. Others in the trolley included Sonia and Sanjeev Chandra from Punjab, also newly-weds. For the first few hours, there was minimum movement in the trolley for fear of dislodging it and causing it to fall. To make matters worse, the little water that was there in the trolley was unfit for drinking.
Meanwhile, some villagers and employees of the resort found Hussain’s badly-mutilated body. He appeared to have fallen head first and died instantly. Debashis was luckier. He fell from about 70 ft, suffering dislocation and fracture of his right hip and a fracture on the shoulder. “I lost consciousness and have no idea how I fell,” said the young bespectacled lawyer from Calcutta, as he lay hospitalised at the Post Graduate Institute in Chandigarh. “I didn’t know the fate of the others still hung in the air. I thought everyone,was strewn around like me.”
By then it was discovered that both the sets of haulage wires that pull the trolleys on the rope tracks had snapped and so had the emergency rope wire. In fact, while the main tracks on which car ‘A’ and car ‘B’ move are separate, each of the haulage wires is one long rope.
The accident occurred when both the trolleys were about to reach their respective ends. Luckily, though the overhead pulleys broke and got derailed from the track, the trolley hood continued to rest on the track. And one of the snapped haulage wires, after getting entangled with the track, got anchored to a tree below which acted as a brake. That whole night, the 10 tourists remained suspended between life and death. Since the walkie-talkie fell with the attendant, all communication links were snapped. It was chilly, there was no warm clothing or drinking water.
AS night fell and the chances of rescue receded, the inmates took stock of the situation. Vishal, 4, unmindful of the danger, was the only one who was cheerful. “Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru,” he kept chanting at his parents’ bidding. No one slept. The gods were invoked. Ram, Hanuman, Nanak. Once in a while, someone would doze off but as the trolley moved with the wind, it would startle them out of their stupor. “Would it not be safer to jump out?” asked one. He was discouraged. However, Joideep, 19, a Delhi student who had been a mountaineer, was busy working out contingency plans. He found a 40-ft long rope and 20-ft long rope ladder in the trolley. It was not enough to slither down to safety. But he did toy with the idea of tying the rope around himself and jumping at a suitable spot if the trolley started moving again.
Soon, a unique camaraderie developed between them. Gurmeet Kaur was in bad shape. Besides vomitting, she was also suffering from diarrhoea. A small can found inside the trolley was used for defecating and the water to wash, while the others looked away. The men urinated through the windows. Meanwhile, at 6 p.m., the hotel management approached the army brigade at Kasauli, 30 km away, for help. The army immediately swung into action:
The Kasauli brigade contacted the Western Army Command at Chandi-mandir. Chief of Staff (Western Command), Lt-General B.K.N. Chhibber, passed instructions to Major-General Baldev Singh to make an assessment of the situation and prepare plans for the rescue. At the same time, he sounded out Western Army Commander, Lt-General B.C. Joshi, who was away in Delhi. Joshi gave the green signal for contingency plans to Chhibber and asked the Army HO for sanction which in turn moved the Ministry of Defence (mod).
By late evening, the 152-helicopter unit based at Sarsawa in Uttar Pradesh had been alerted, so too the 1 para commando unit at Nahan, Hima-chal Pradesh. Meanwhile, the engineers’ unit at Chandimandir assessed the ground realities at the cable car site. The mod conveyed its sanction on the telephone the next morning. A Cheetah helicopter from Sarsawa reached at 8.30, while the commandos arrived from Nahan.
“Befikar rahiye, aap ko bachaane helicopter aa rahe hain. Agar aap meri aawaz sun rahe hain, to kapda faharayen,” (Do not worry. Helicopters are coming to rescue you. If you, can hear me, wave a cloth), announced an army captain from a megaphone. A yellow dupatta was instantly waved in response.
As the papers splashed the news that morning, thousands of people from Chandigarh made a bee-line for the resort in their cars, scooters and motorcycles. The commandos and air force personnel studied the trolley parked at the base and worked out three alternative plans:
Lower a commando into the trolley and then winch the trapped persons up by a helicopter. Detach the trolley from the track and the wires, attach it with the hatchet of the helicopter and lift it up. Attach the trolley with another wire and lower it into the valley. A 300 m special wire was brought from Delhi overnight.
The first option was considered the best. Two commandos were prepared for the job. Group Captain F.H. Major in a Cheetah, along with his crew and the commandos, conducted a reconnaissance of the area from 11 a.m. onwards.
But the rescue operation was delayed due to the danger to the helicopter’s rotors from the other rope track running parallel. Tools to lower the rope track were not available. And since the Cheetah’s winching rope was not long enough, an MI-17 chopper with a 120-ft long winching rope was requisitioned from Sarsawa. Repeated sorties to the site to make the operation fool-proof caused further trepidation among the trapped persons. “Bachao, bachao,” they would shout, waving a cloth.
At 2.30 p.m. almost 22 hours after the accident-a packet containing food and water was lowered into the trolley from the Timber Heights-end through a rope. By then Gurmeet Kaur had gone pale with dehydration. “The water was a great relief but no one really felt like eating,” recalls Sanjeev Chhabra. After repeated attempts, at 5.25 p.m. the MI-17 flown by Wing Commanders. Chandra, landed Major Ivan Joseph Crasto on the roof of the trolley. He entered it through the roof hatch. “Crasto was like an angel of God,” says Malini.
The 28-year-old Crasto, who had done a training stint in the Soviet Union, had just returned from Goa after attending his mother’s funeral. His arrival immediately raised hopes of the rescue operation succeeding. Since the evacuation required being strapped to a chair on the roof of the trolley before being winched, Crasto had to watch out for anyone suffering from vertigo. They were, moreover, untrained and traumatised. When Crasto explained the procedure, there was reluctance, particularly from the women.
He decided on first sending out Joideep, the most confident of the lot. There was perfect precision. Crasto first strapped him to the chair, then a team of three air force personnel in the helicopter slowly winched it up, while the chopper gained height to fly away. As Joideep was being winched, there was a thunderous applause from the thousands of spectators on the highway. In fact, the police had to be stationed in the 1-km area along the highway to regulate traffic and manage the crowd, sections of which even raised slogans against the hotel management.
The others were encouraged by Joideep’s rescue. Gurmeet Kaur was the next to be lifted out. Crasto had a hard time pulling out the passengers through the hatch as they would not let go of their grip. When it was decided to send the child out, a trembling Harit was not confident of making it with his son. Pankaj offered to do the needful. But Harit’s wife insisted that “as the father, you are the best person for his safety”. So Harit was first strapped to the rope seat and then Vishal strapped onto his lap. Joideep, who was by then comfortably seated in the chopper, even clicked photographs. With this, five of the 10 persons had been lifted out.
Since the light was failing, it was decided to resume the rescue operation the following day. The five who remained in the trolley were crestfallen. Crasto stayed on in the cable car to boost their spirits. “I have two kids at home and the fact that I am staying on means there is nothing to worry,” he comforted them. But there was little cheer for even those who had been rescued. In most of the cases, one of the spouses was still trapped. In another daring deed, Ghulam Mohammad, a ropeway mechanic, reached the trolley from the upper end using a rope, with food, water and blankets for the passengers.
The next morning-October 15- after the first sortie, another MI-17 had to be requisitioned due to a mechanical fault. By 10 a.m. the daring Operation Timber Trail was over with the gutsy Crasto being the last to be winched up.As the families united at the Chandimandir helipad, most of them crying, Flight Lieutenant P. Upadhyay said with relief: “It was the toughest rescue operation I’ve carried out. The wires were so close to the chopper.”
Meanwhile, the crowds lining the highway demanded instant retribution. Some even suggested that the management of the resort be dumped into the trolley which still hung perilously in mid-air. But for those who had escaped death by a hair’s breadth, it was enough just to be alive.