A few good men and an angry sea: The IAF story

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe (3rd from left) with Air Chief

Ten years ago today, one of the 21st century’s biggest disasters–the tsunami–struck most of South and South-East Asia killing over quarter of a million people. Closer home, the tsunami affected southern Indian states but its most devastating impact was felt in the Andaman Nicobar group of islands.

 THE ISLAND of Car Nicobar is about 1,500 kilometre east of Chennai and almost the same distance south of Kolkata. It takes four-and-half hours to arrive on the island from Chennai by a slow moving propeller aircraft like the Antonov-32. The sea route is an experience in itself and takes about forty-eight hours.

 It is also the southernmost Indian military base  that houses an Indian Air Force Station. Car Nicobar was completely destroyed in 2004. Many air warriors and their families died; the infrastructure on the island was totally flattened by the rampaging sea on that fateful morning.

The IAF, in a typical military fashion, launched one of its biggest missions in the Andaman Nicobar Islands but after the immediate rescue was done, the big task of retrieving the situation, rebuilding the base from scratch and rehabilitating civilians as well as families of air warriors remained.

That’s when a task force was formed. And in no time, the CarNic as the Car Nicobar base is known, was up and running. The effort was herculean. Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, a serving senior helicopter pilot of the Indian Air Force, then a Wing Commander in-charge of a station at Patiala, was made the Task Force Commander of the team that was entrusted with putting the CarNIC base back on its feet.

A decade after the tsunami Air Commodore Sathe has put together the incredible story of survival, guts, resilience and indomitable spirit of the air warriors and their families, civilians and the government’s efforts in rebuilding the strategically important military base, in a book

A Few Good Men and  the ANGRY Sea: 2004 Tsunami, the IAF Story

As he says

26 December 2004:

“A DAY that changed my life forever. That day, the tsunami ravaged a large part of the peninsular region of India, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in particular, causing devastation and tragedy. I was among the few who had the opportunity to go and serve on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands soon after the catastrophe occurred. That experience changed the way I look at life. I would first like to salute those who bore the brunt of the earthquake and the subsequent deadly waves. They had no choice when nature unleashed its fury on them. I salute the team of dedicated Indians who were part of the rescue, relief and rehabilitation effort, who toiled against tremendous odds to help humanity. These people came to the devastated islands by choice. Volunteers came from all walks of life—from the Indian Armed Forces, the Paramilitary, the National Disaster Relief Force, the Police, voluntary organisations, the IT industry and other fields.

They had just one goal—to help the affected get back on their feet as soon as possible. I will always be indebted to the Indian Air Force for giving me the opportunity to serve in the mission, and later permitting me to get this book published.”

THE WORD ‘tsunami’ is said to be of Japanese origin and means ‘harbour wave’. These are high frequency-low amplitude waves generated by seismic activity on the ocean floor, vertically displacing the overlying water in the ocean. These waves travel at a speed of up to 700-800 kilometre per hour above the ocean floor. As they reach the shallow waters of the continental shelf, they transform into waves of larger amplitude and low frequency and travel at speeds up to 70 kmph. The huge mass of water at this speed can smash through literally everything in its path once it hits land. The waves are typically 10 to 15 metres high (and can go as high as 25 to 30 metres) and can cause colossal destruction up to about one to three kilometre inland. More often than not, these waves, formed under the ocean due to smaller earthquakes, die out and don’t manifest themselves as destructive tsunamis. Any earthquake of above 7.5 on the Richter scale is likely to cause a large tsunami wave of destructive nature if many other conditions are met. A large percentage of these would still peter out by themselves. The 26 December 2004 tsunami had been preceded by an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre near the city of Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, in the early hours of 0628 hours IST. This was the second severest earthquake ever recorded in history. The earthquake’s epicentre was 10 kilometre below the surface of the ocean, along two tectonic plates. The fault created along the tectonic plates was about a 1,000 kilometre in length, aligned in a north-south direction. This generated a wave travelling in an east-west direction, which had enough energy to travel for about 4,500 km, to hit some parts of the eastern shores of Africa 24 hours later. The fi rst recorded tsunami in India dates back to 31 December 1881. An earthquake of magnitude 7.5 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre believed to have been above the sea just off the shoreline of Car Nicobar Island, caused a small tsunami. THE TOTAL energy released by the 2004 earthquake has been estimated as 3.35 Exajoules (3.35 x 1018 Joules), as noted by the Royal Geographic Society. This is equivalent to 930 terawatt hours of electric power—as much as the entire United States consumes in eleven days! The earthquake can be compared to a 0.8 Gigaton TNT explosion which can cause shock waves across the planet. The entire earth’s surface is estimated to have moved vertically by up to a centimetre. This shift of mass and massive release of energy slightly altered the earth’s rotation and also caused a ‘wobble’ on its axis, reported various science journals and media articles.
The book records the early hours of tsunami thus:

“Squadron Leader Selson Rodrigues hosted a Christmas party at his home near the beach that year. Almost all the officers and their families stationed at the Indian Air Force base on the island attended the celebrations which continued well into the night. Plans were made for a beach dance party on New Year’s Eve. The bachelors wanted the party to be held in the ante-room at the Officers’ Mess, which had recently been fitted with disco lights and a huge music system. These young officers felt that the station had had too many parties by the sea and 2005 should be brought in differently. The party at the Rodrigues’ home wound up well past midnight. A couple of hours later (0628 hours IST), strong tremors shook the island. The residents were jolted out of their sleep by the tremors and the cracking noise that accompanied them it. This lasted for almost six to eight minutes, making walls fracture and fixtures fall all over. More aftershocks followed in a few minutes. It seemed that the entire island was in a continuous swaying motion. The islands are prone to high seismic activity, so those stationed on Car Nicobar were familiar with earthquakes. This one, though, was gigantic compared to the ones they had experienced so far. Flying Officer DJ Bhandarkar, a still-serving officer who is one of the survivors of the 2004 tsunami, describes it graphically in his diary: In my sleep, I felt as if someone was shaking me very vigorously. I opened my eyes. The bed on which I was sleeping got pushed away and crashed against the cupboard which was almost two feet away and came back. I was shocked. The fan above was shaking from side to side so violently that all the blades had bent. All around there was a haunting sound coming from the ground. The walls were shaking like paper, the floor was shaking, moving up and down with a very severe screeching sound coming from the walls of the house. I saw water seeping in from the overgrowth with tremendous force and it was heading in our direction. Telephones rang and discussions took place. The officers started trooping out of their homes and stood talking to each other across the fences, unaware at the time of what was to come. Even as they were discussing the situation, some of the officers noticed the Station Commander, Group Captain VV Bandopadhyay, whizzing by in his car. Bandy wanted to find out what damage had been caused to the hangars, service property and the airmen’s accommodation. He was most worried about the hangars since they had been declared weak and fragile by experts who had examined them recently. As the bewildered personnel stood looking out towards the sea, they were stunned to discover that the water had withdrawn much more than it did even during very low tides. As a result, the brilliant coral was visible and glistened in multiple colours, exposed from under the water for the first time. Intrigued, some adventurous officers grabbed their cameras and rushed to the shoreline. 

The sea continued to recede and the officers had an eyeful of the brilliant blues, reds, oranges and yellows of the exposed corals, little understanding the sinister implications of this beautiful sight. Squadron Leader NS Dihot had just bought a video camera and decided this was an opportunity not to be missed. He dashed down to the beach to get the footage he wanted. A damaged camera was washed ashore a few days later; the man was lost forever…”

The book, a mix of personal recollections, the post-disaster rescue efforts and the journey of the base in the last decade, should be read by everyone who cares for the armed forces.

 At the time of the tsunami, the base supported an approximate population of 2,000 which included the families of officers and airmen. Barring the absence of families, today, the air base is fully functional and available for round-the-clock operations. The strategic reach of the Air Force and the power projection of our country is enhanced manifold due to the availability of this base at this very strategic location.

Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha  released the book at Air HQ on Friday.

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe, his colleagues and the Air Force need to be commended for this marvellous effort.

  1. December 26, 2014 -

    Amazing… there are so many stories out there, when it comes to the armed forces…