A grimmer picture of devastation in quake-hit Sikkim emerged on Tuesday as soldiers blasted boulders blocking hill roads and reached isolated areas like Mangan, 65km from Gangtok. With help reaching faraway regions, the body count from Sunday's temblor raced passed 130 and could rise as many more are feared trapped.
Officially, Sikkim has so far confirmed 58 deaths, the rest of the casualties being from Bhutan, Nepal, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand. But as shocking details emerged, authorities feared at least 40 workers at a hydel power plant site in North Sikkim's Saffo might have perished within minutes, caught in a mountain duct when the tectonic plates under the lower Himalayas shook. Dozens others are missing and feared trapped in the same hydel project site and there's no confirmation of the number of people engaged there.
Saffo is 9km downstream from Chungthang and the accident site is around 30km downstream from the popular tourist destination Lachen. An engineer working for the Hyderabad-based Athena Group, which is handling the project, said 15 workers had died at the site and at least 10 were missing. The tragedy came to light on Tuesday when officials of the Teesta Urja Co-a joint venture between the Hyderabad-based company and the Sikkim Power Department-chartered a chopper to airlift the body of D D Gupta, a senior officer.
Government sources said when they learnt of the airlift, they asked company officials where they had found Gupta's body. The officials were initially hesitant, but ultimately revealed the shocking story. Gupta, a quality control officer, had entered an access tunnel leading to the 1,200 MW Teesta Stage III Hydel Project site deep in the mountain recess.
When the temblor struck about 40 workers were drilling through the mountain to carry water from the dam at Chungthang, 100km from Gangtok, to the generation plant downstream at Mangan, Athena officials suspect. "It appears that some tunnels collapsed burying the men deep in the mountain," a government source said.
"It is unlikely that any of the workers survived the earthquake (that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale). And even if they did, it's doubtful that they'd hold out for very long. The area is mountainous and it will take days before tunnels are re-excavated and the bodies pulled out," a government official said.
Till late Tuesday afternoon, the company maintained that the construction site was intact and about eight people-six labourers and two junior engineers-had died when a boulder crushed their car near Saffo. But, now there are fears that Teesta Urja hasn't come out with the full disaster story. Several hundred workers are engaged at the construction site. A company official denied any tunnel had collapsed at Saffo.
Elsewhere, rescue teams inched close to the quake epicenter and columns of soldiers, riding trucks, tractors and earthmovers and armed with drills, cutters and pick-axes, completed an arduous trek to enter Mangan, the flattened headquarters of the North Sikkim district.
Mangan was a picture of devastation as many anxious and distraught residents waited as National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) personnel with Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Indian Army men toiled to clear debris from blocked roads. The army used explosives to blow up boulder piles, some as tall as three-story buildings. In Gangtok, Sikkim DGP Jasbir Singh said he feared the toll could go much higher. "Yes, large areas are still cut off. We fear the toll could rise."
At Mangan, brick and mortar churches had collapsed, giant boulders blocked roads and landslides had flattened entire localities. "On reaching Mangan, we realized the epicenter was 50km north, where villages and habitations have suffered the worst damage," an NDRF officer said. Rescue teams set off for the area but their progress was stopped by a fresh landslide.