January 21, 1995 in Nation/World

Thousands In India Stranded After Avalanche Cuts Off Road Many Took Refuge In Tunnel

Binoo Joshi Associated Press
 

Sitting beside his truck Friday on the winding Jammu-Srinagar highway, Daya Singh warmed his hands, stirred a pot of vegetables and placed a chicken over a scrap wood fire.

There was nothing else to do, nowhere to go.

Like thousands of other stranded people, Singh was waiting for soldiers to clear the snow that was piled higher than his truck after an avalanche on Monday cut off the main road in India’s northern state of Kashmir.

The early morning avalanche hit about three miles from the tunnel, burying dozens of cars and knocking at least five buses and trucks down steep ravines in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

Five days later, 125 people are dead, 105 are missing and more than 4,500 have been rescued, according to state police. The United News of India news agency said 140 people died and 130 were missing. There was no way to immediately reconcile the reports.

Witnesses said the death toll probably would have been much higher if hundreds had not abandoned their buses and cars during the blizzard and taken shelter in the Banihal Tunnel before the avalanche struck Monday morning.

Heavy snow continued to hamper the relief effort until Friday, when five bulldozers arrived to help relief workers and villagers recover bodies, said N.K.Verma, an official supervising the operation.

Only about 50 women and children were still camped near the tunnel, according to an official at the state police control room.

Abdul Majid Bhat, a bus passenger who spent two nights in the cold, dark tunnel earlier this week, recalled how horrifying that was.

“On the first night, we thought the nightmare would be over, but it continued for two days and two nights,” he said Friday in a telephone interview from Srinagar.

“During the day I saw frozen bodies, but it was even worse at night because in the darkness I could hear snow banks falling outside and the moaning of the dying,” he said.

After two days and nights, hundreds of survivors walked nearly two miles through the tunnel, then hiked through the deep snow to a nearby village.

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