June 28, 2013


[After the helicopter dropped them off in Dehradun, Mr. Gopalakrishna and his wife searched everywhere, but couldn’t find their children or fellow pilgrims. “We are hopeful that they are there somewhere,” Ms. Janaki said in a weak, low voice.]
Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Posters of people who went missing during the  flash floods, pasted on a gate in Dehradun,
Uttarakhand, on Wednesday.
UTTARAKHAND—A big projector screen in the police control room in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, was alive with pictures of the latest batch of rescued pilgrims. Hundreds of relatives of missing pilgrims were making inquiries, checking photographs of the latest arrivals of rescued pilgrims and cross-checking call details and last locations of mobile phones of the missing.
V. Gopalakrishna, a 53-year-old sorting assistant with the postal department in Hyderabad in southern India, and his wife, D.V. Janaki, a 52-year-old employee with an adjoining state’s telecommunication department, had arrived at the control room to register a report on their children, who went missing in the flood near the Kedarnath shrine on June 16.
The couple had married late by Indian standards and became parents a decade ago, in their early 40s. “We had twins. A daughter and a son, born 15 minutes later,” said Mr. Gopalakrishna.
“My son and daughter were ahead of us with the porters. We thought that they are safe and we are in danger,” said Mr. Gopalakrishna, sobbing. It turned out to be the other way around.
Mr. Gopalakrishna, his wife, sister and two kids were part of a 13-member group who were on the pilgrimage to Kedarnath shrine on June 16. They were coming down after visiting the holy shrine. They had hired porters for their kids. When the mountainous track was swept away by the flash floods, the parents were separated from the children.
“We ran up on the hills to save us and thought that kids are safe ahead,” recalled Ms. Janaki.
A holy man in the upper hills gave them shelter in his small cave for three days. “My sister died in front of my eyes due to cold and exhaustion. We even could not bring her body back,” said Mr. Gopalakrishna. An army helicopter rescued them on June 21.
After the helicopter dropped them off in Dehradun, Mr. Gopalakrishna and his wife searched everywhere, but couldn’t find their children or fellow pilgrims. “We are hopeful that they are there somewhere,” Ms. Janaki said in a weak, low voice.
“I never thought that they will die together also,” said Mr. Gopalakrishna.
By Wednesday evening, the police control room had registered reports on 800 missing people, said Jaya Baloni, a police officer. More than 1,000 people have died in the floods. About 3,000 pilgrims are still stranded because of washed-away roads and bridges.
“Disasters and miracles happen side by side,” said Mr. Gopalakrishna, as he held onto the fading hope of finding his children.
Across the state of Uttarakhand, anxious relatives continued to look for their missing kin. In the town of Rishikesh, 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Dehradun, the main bus yard was filled with waiting relatives. The bus yard, now a hub for stranded pilgrims who are being evacuated by road, was choked by tents erected by relief agencies, state governments, political parties and nongovernmental organizations.
As a bus carrying rescued pilgrims coming from the Badrinath shrine entered the depot, anxious relatives rushed to the arriving pilgrims with the pictures of the missing and a question: Have you seen him? Have you seen her? The answers were almost always negative.
Mohan Pethiya, a 49-year-old man from Shivpuri in Uttarakhand, had been hanging about the bus yard for five days, showing a photo of his sister to pilgrims arriving in bus after bus. His sister and her fellow pilgrims had mobile phones, and Mr. Pethiya had last heard from her on June 16, before the floods hit. “I am not able to trace her,” said Mr. Pethiya.
She had been trekking near Kedarnath when the floods came. Around 600 bodies have been found around Kedarnath, and preparations for mass cremations were being made.
The most recent arrivals were from the pilgrimage center of Badrinath, where around 10,000 pilgrims were stranded after landslides and floods washed away roads and bridges. Shyam Lal, a 28-year-old tailor from Sultanpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, had taken his elderly parents on the pilgrimage and arrived in Badrinath a night before the rains came.
“We had food, water, and shelter in Badrinath, but we couldn’t leave,” said Mr. Lal. After waiting for five days in Badrinath, Mr. Lal, his parents and several others walked tens of miles toward a highway, where vehicles were reported to be plying. Along the way, they had to cross a stream. Indian soldiers were helping people cross and took the elderly first, including his parents.
“I crossed around three hours after my parents,” said Mr. Lal. Two days later, he arrived in Rishikesh on a bus but hasn’t been able to find his parents.
“They must be in a relief camp somewhere. I do not know where,” said Mr. Lal. “I will keep looking for them.”