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Buried under silt are loved ones missing in India's flood

By Nic Robertson and Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 4:05 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Seemingly endless lists of missing persons continue to grow
  • Dozens of survivors walk through streets holding pictures of people they've lost
  • There are not enough people to search all of the piles of rubble lying in rivers and ravines
  • Many of those unaccounted for are feared buried in the silt

Rishikesk, India (CNN) -- A crowd of people gathered around the bruised and battered man eager to listen to his tragic story. They were hoping he'd have news from the mountains he was plucked in northern India, where thousands of their loved ones are still missing.

A monsoon dumped over a foot of rain at once in Uttarakhand state last week, causing widespread landslides in the Himalayas. Barrages of water, mud and rocks wiped out whole villages. The man telling his story was on a pilgrimage to a Hindu temple at the time.

"So many rocks, so much silt. We were pushed up and up inside the roof," he said, sitting in a clinic in the city of Rishikesk in the state's east. "No space to breath, then the walls collapsed. My wife and daughter were ripped away."

A mountain tsunami

Pedestrians run from water splashing over a sea wall in Mumbai on Monday, June 24. Authorities are scrambling to rescue thousands of people trapped after floods and landslides ravaged north India, leaving up to 1,000 feared dead. Pedestrians run from water splashing over a sea wall in Mumbai on Monday, June 24. Authorities are scrambling to rescue thousands of people trapped after floods and landslides ravaged north India, leaving up to 1,000 feared dead.
India lashed by monsoon rains
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Images: India lashed by monsoon rains Images: India lashed by monsoon rains

Uttarakhand's chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, has described the disaster as a "Himalayan tsunami."

Is climate change causing disasters?
Massive rescue effort continues in India

Dotted with temples and often referred to as "the Land of Gods," the state attracts large numbers of pilgrims from around India to its mountainous reaches. Those travelers, many of them far from home and short on belongings, were caught up in the destruction.

Helicopter blades have cut through the air for a week over ravines still filled with flood water. They have brought back thousands of survivors, who, like this man, have told stories of tragic loss.

Many of them came with family members to worship together at shrines.

Now dozens of them wander the streets of Rishikesk, displaying pictures of their missing loved ones.

One man holds up a piece of paper with five pictures on it. Another near him is missing eight family members, another 10.

"Last communication was on 16th," a woman who has lost her parents said. "They were in Verdana. Since then we haven't had any communication and we have not got any clue about them."

They stand in front of walls papered with lists containing endless rows of the names. Many of them have been accounted for, but that doesn't help this crowd.

The survivors ask police and locals: "Have you seen them?" "No" is the answer they consistently hear. Their hope is fading.

The rest feared dead

50,000 survivors were originally cut off by the debris, according to authorities.

The choppers have just 6,000 people left to ferry into town, and the number of shaken pilgrims coming into a receiving station is slowing to a trickle.

It should have been a many more arriving there with them. The rest are feared dead, buried in endless piles of debris lying at the bottoms of steep slopes.

"The numbers of missing people are increasing," said police officer Pankaj Pokhriyal. Relief centers take down their details, and relay them to army bases in the mountains. But there aren't enough rescuers to comb all of the river banks and fields of rubble.

Frustration and blame

Angry and desperate, the crowd lashes out at authorities and local journalists over what they feel are misplaced priorities. Instead of inspecting damage to buildings, they should have done more to account for people inside them, a man complains.

Ecologists have blamed the catastrophe in part on rapid development in the tourist region.

Hotels have shot up with roads hastily cut to reach them, they say. Dozens of dams and other hydro projects have been built. Tunnels have been quickly dug and hillsides blasted away, according to environmentalist Devinder Sharma.

Uttarakhand's government website posts the names of survivors alongside their home towns to relieve the agony of those searching for them.

But authorities also ask for help in identifying the dead, whose pictures they have published.

It's hard to imagine recognizing a brother, sister or mother in the photos of recovered bodies bloated beyond recognition and covered in silt.

It's harder to imagine wanting to.

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