At least 14 people are dead and more than 150 missing after a glacier burst in India’s northern Uttarakhand state Sunday and crashed through two hydroelectric projects, triggering deadly flash floods along the river.
Footage of the disaster showed a fast-moving avalanche of dust, rock and water barreling through the narrow gorge in Chamoli district, in the Himalayan state, and sweeping away parts of a dam as well as buildings, trees and people in its path. Those living further down the river were urged to evacuate from the rising waters.
Rescue teams worked throughout the night to find survivors and recover bodies. Fifteen people trapped in a tunnel were rescued on Monday, according to Chamoli District Police, though rescuers are now focusing on a second tunnel which is blocked with debris.
Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said at a press conference Sunday that a tunnel at the state-owned NTPC hydro project was clogged with debris from the avalanche triggered by the glacial burst.
“Uttarakhand has witnessed a terrible disaster,” Rawat said, adding that the state is expecting “significant loss to human lives and infrastructure.”
Indian Army and members from India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have been assisting rescue efforts, and more NDRF teams are being airlifted from New Delhi and expected to arrive on Monday.
Images from the NDRF showed teams trying to clear thick layers of mud and debris around the entrance to what appears to be a tunnel.
“This was a one-time incident. The glacier broke, and with it a portion on the mountain- boulders and debris all came down and flooded the power project here … There are two locations here which have been damaged heavily,” said Ashok Kumar, senior official with the Uttarakhand police to local reporters Monday morning.
From the two projects, a total of 153 people are missing, he added.
The avalanche completely inundated the Rishiganga Power project – a smaller hydroelectric dam on the river in Chamoli. Those living alongside the Alaknanda River were urged to flee to safety, but stay calm.
The minister said of the total 35 people working at the plant, “roughly 29 to 30 people are missing.”
Flash floods then surged 5 kilometers downstream on the Dhauli Ganga river and impacted a much larger hydro project owned by the NTPC, Rawat said. Some 176 laborers were working on that project, which has two tunnels, the minister said.
“Roughly 15 people” managed to get out of one tunnel after getting word of the avalanche on their mobile devices, Rawat said, adding that 35 to 50 workers had been rescued and returned to the NTPC plant.
Workers could be trapped in tunnels
More than 30 workers could be stuck in the second tunnel, he warned. Rescuers are battling to reach them but the surrounding road is covered in debris.
The Chief Minister also announced a compensation of four lakh Indian Rupees ($5,495.39 USD) for the families of those deceased.
A witness told Reuters that an avalanche of dust, rock and water cascaded down the Dhauli Ganga river valley located more than 500 km (310 miles) north of New Delhi.
“It came very fast, there was no time to alert anyone,” Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives on the upper reaches of the river in Raini village in Uttarakhand, told Reuters by phone. “I felt that even we would be swept away.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a message of support in the wake of the disaster. “Am constantly monitoring the unfortunate situation in Uttarakhand,” he tweeted.
“India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there. Have been continuously speaking to senior authorities and getting updates on NDRF deployment, rescue work and relief operations.”
Uttarakhand state is home to the source of the Ganges River, the site of Hinduism’s famous Char Dham pilgrimage and Rishikesh, the meditation retreat popularized by The Beatles. But the area is also prone to flash floods and landslides – in 2013, the state was hit by what was dubbed by the area’s chief minister as a “Himalayan tsunami.”
Nearly 6,000 people lost their lives those floods, according to Reuters.