“It happened within the blink of an eye. My husband and my daughter fell into the river and were swept away in the swirling waters before my own eyes. I was helpless,” an inconsolably sobbing Madhulatha recalled her ordeal.
Minutes before the overloaded private tourist boat, packed with holiday revellers, turned turtle and capsized in the Godavari river in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh on Sunday (September 15), there was fun and frolic on the deck. The passengers were taking selfies, music was on and some were dancing to the popular Tollywood numbers.
“Suddenly, there was panic all around as the boat tiled to a side and people were falling into the river. My husband quickly pushed me and my daughter up but in the process he slipped and fell. My daughter tried to hold on to my legs to save herself from drowning but I could not save her. I too should have gone. Why am I alive?” Madhulatha said. She was saved by some of the fellow passengers and shifted to a hospital at Rampachodavaram.
Her family was among the 72 people, mostly holiday revellers on their way to Papikondalu, a popular tourist spot, when the tragedy struck their double-decker vessel.
So far, the bodies of 12 passengers have been retrieved. The NDRF teams have rescued 24 people while the search is still on for the missing. The mishap occurred near Katchuluru in East Godavari district, about 210 km from Vijayawada.
Birthday boy drowns
Godavari river always beckoned Dhanush, an environmental activist, who made it a habit to celebrate his birthday in the middle of the river. This time too, he boarded the boat along with three of his friends for a birthday bash.
But, he met watery grave. “What do I tell his wife and daughter now?” his friend kameshwar said in a voice choked with emotion as he recalled the ordeal. Dhanush’s family lives in Narsapur town in West Godavari district.
A young couple from Telangana’s Manchiryal district K Ramya and B lakshman, both engineers, who went on a holiday trip is still missing.
A pall of gloom has descended on Ramalakshmi colony in the coastal Andhra city of Visakhapatnam as 12 members of a family from the colony are among those missing in the boat tragedy. The family of M Ramana Babu, including his wife, children, were on a trip to Papikondalu.
“We were having lunch and some cultural programmes were going on when the tragedy struck,” said Janaki Ram who managed to escape.
K Vasu, a villager of Thotigunta, was quoted by the local TV channels as saying that they had rescued 20 passengers.
“The mishap could have been averted if the driver had slowed down the vessel as we approached a whirlpool. It overturned in no time,” said Santhosh Kumar who managed to swim to safety.
The ‘Royal Vashishta’ boat had no valid permission to ply on the route, either from the Tourism Department or Irrigation Department.
None of the victims was wearing life jacket. The vessel operators have, however, claimed that it had 150 jackets but the most passengers had refused to wear them.
It has now emerged that the boat was overloaded. While its capacity was 50, there were over 70 people on board including the crew members.
The authorities had advised the boat operators not to venture into the area due to heavy inflows into Godavari in the past few days following widespread rains.
Ignoring the advisory, the tourist boat went ahead with the journey. The area around Kachuluru is known to have a lot of steep curves and whirlpools.
Among the passengers, 22 were from Telangana districts of Warangal, Manchiryal, Nalgonda and Hyderabad while others were from coastal Andhra region.
The State Tourism Minister M Srinivasa Rao said that the boat did not have permission from the department. Moreover, the tourist boat services were suspended a few weeks ago due to heavy inflows into the river.
However, it has now emerged that the boat drivers, who are among the missing, told the Devipatnam police that they had licence from the Kakinada port.
It is alleged that the officials did not stop the tourist boats, despite the flood conditions.
“It is a serious lapse. How can they allow a tourist boat when the river was in spate?” asked Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan.
Katchuluru, where the mishap occurred, is considered a dangerous spot. This was the third accident in the area in the last 50 years. In 1964, over 60 passengers were killed in a boat capsize. In 1984, a similar tragedy had claimed 8 lives.
In May last year, a country boat carrying nearly 40 passengers capsized near Pasuvulanka village after it turned turtle, killing 22 people.
As per the safety protocol, issued in August last year, the route permissions for various vessels operating in the rivers should be given by the irrigation department.
However, the latest tragedy reveals that the department did not follow the guidelines. The Home Minister M Sucharita assured that action would be taken against the officials responsible the lapses.
Jagan visits the spot
The Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy on Monday (September 16) conducted an aerial survey of the area and reviewed the relief and rescue operations with the officials.
Later, he visited the government hospital at Rajahmundry where the rescued passengers are being treated.
Facing the first major crisis after taking over the reins of the state over three months ago, the Chief Minister announced an ex-gratia of ₹10 lakh each to the families of those killed in the accident.
He announced suspension of licences of all boats operating along the Godavari River and directed the officials to conduct a thorough inspection of all the boats.
Along with Two NDRF teams, each comprising 30 members, the Navy helicopters were deployed in the rescue operations. Two boats of the AP Tourism Department are also engaged in the search operations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his grief over the boat tragedy.
Extremely pained by the capsizing of a boat in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari. My thoughts are with the bereaved families. Rescue operations are currently underway at the site of the tragedy.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 15, 2019
Meanwhile, the former Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) N Chandrababu Naidu and Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan also expressed shock over the boat tragedy and asked their party workers to take part in the rescue operations.
Major boat mishaps in East Godavari district:
1995: 98 dead in boat capsize at Papikondalu.
2009: 10 dead in boat tragedy near Kondamodalu village.
2012: 18 dead at Gannavaram area.
2016: 5 drowned at Bobbarlanka near Dowleswaram.
2018: 22 dead at Pasuvula Lanka.: A
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