After the tsunami: rebirth of an island

Commissioned into the Indian Air Force in December 1984, Air Commodore Nitin Sathe has 30 years of distinguished service as a helicopter pilot. Part of numerous operations in India and abroad, he currently heads a premier Services Selection Board for the IAF. In his book, 2004 Tsunami: A Few Good Men & the Angry Sea, is the inspiring story of how human endeavour on a tiny corner of the earth overcame one of the greatest natural disasters in history. In this interview with Swetha Amit, Air Commodore Sathe talks about his debut book, his life on Car Nicobar Island for a year and how being a part of the relief work has changed his outlook towards life.

Congratulations on the heroic account of the relief operations post the 2004 Tsunami. How did you come up with the idea of this coffee table book?
Well it was never intended to be a coffee table book or a book for that matter in the first place.  Initially I just started penning down my thoughts on my computer about my stay on the island to keep a record of the events.

Unfortunately I was unable to retrieve it later as the files got corrupted due to some virus. After a few years, I found that there was not a single person who was able to give a full account of what happened as there were only three people who stayed back on the island for as long as I did, which was an entire year.  That is when I realized that I must write it down as a diary to keep a record of the events and that's how I started writing.

In the process my friends suggested converting this record into a book which inspired me to write the entire set of events in a story format. Once that was done, I approached my publisher who felt that it would work better as a coffee table book. So I included a lot of photographs taken by various people during the time when I was on the island and that's how A few Good Men & the Angry Sea came about.

After being posted in Patiala what prompted your decision to handle the relief operations at Car Nicobar post the Tsunami in 2004?
I was in Patiala back then and was commanding a small station.  When I heard about the Tsunami, I knew that there would be a huge requirement for manpower to help out with the relief work. So I immediately got in touch with my boss and told him that I was keen to be a part of the team in charge of the relief operations.

At that point in time they were looking for people and had already shortlisted my name to go there and be the task force commander. So, one thing led to another and things just fell into place. 

Within no time I found myself packing my bags and preparing to go to Car Nicobar. My intention was to do something worthwhile which would make a difference to the local people and to society.

Your posting involved a great deal of risk. How did your family react to your decision?
There is an element of risk involved in almost every operation that we undertake so there was no special risk as such in this case. However this was an island situated really far off with no communication facility as everything was down due to the catastrophe.

The family obviously was very worried initially but eventually supported my decision as they thought it was a very good thing to do. It was a mission which was different and challenging; something everybody was looking forward to.

It's one thing to view the images of nature's fury on television and a different thing to see it in person. What did you actually see when you landed on the scene of devastation?
We had a fair idea about what happened there from first person accounts...we had met a large number of survivors that evening in Chennai when we landed in Chennai the day before we were preparing to reach the island.  But we really couldn't imagine what we would actually see. When the plane approached the island after a long four-hour flight, we had our first aerial view of the devastation. Everything looked flattened out and topsy-turvy.

The runway was littered with a lot of garbage. The sea looked extremely rough and it was dark brown in colour. In fact when we landed, the first thing that hit us was thetrenchant odour of rotting flora mixed with the smell of the angry smell??

Parts of the forest were missing and it appeared as though somebody had just sliced the island with a knife. We saw logs of wood floating in the sea. I can never forget what I saw. Those images are still fresh in my mind even after so many years.

You had initially stayed in tents and rather primitive conditions, which were challenging. How did you acclimatise yourself mentally to survive in such conditions where you were under the constant threat of malaria and other diseases?
Right from the time when we join the National Defence Academy and armed forces we are taught and conditioned to survive under tough situations. Every aspect of training, which includes both physical and mental toughness played a vital role here. We were quite prepared to stay in tents and didn't have a problem adjusting to such conditions where water was scarce and we were only on a dal-chawal diet for the first few days till the supplies stabilised and we had established our cook houses.

We were also adequately guarded against diseases like cholera, dysentery and malaria so that was not a problem. I don't think we were unduly worried about our living conditions or food. We were more concerned about where to start our rehabilitation work. There was severe damage everywhere and deciding the starting point from where we could commence our work was the challenging aspect.

You have mentioned about how the sea had receded to an extent where the colourful corals were visible and treated this as a Tsunami warning. However during the normal course of a low and high tide, the sea shows a similar pattern. How does one distinguish this normal pattern of the sea from an impending tsunami warning?
During the low tide, the water goes back only up to a particular level. Even in a high tide, the sea has this maximum point up to where the water level rises.  However during this particular instance, the tsunami period, the water had unusually receded almost a kilometre into the sea and that's how the corals were visible.  In the normal course of the high and low tide, the corals are not visible.

In fact, if you look at the physics of a tsunami with regards to its occurrence, you will understand why the water starts coming in slowly. Early chapters of my book describe the tsunami - how and why it occurs so that people get a clear idea what it actually is.

A tsunami is usually formed after high intensity earthquakes measuring upwards of 7.5 on the Richter scale. It travels at the rate of 700kmph under the sea. When it reaches the continental shelf and the coastline then it becomes a high amplitude wave. Depending on the distance between the place where the earthquake has occurred and the epicentre, the tsunami can either strike immediately or it could take a while.  The tsunami waves took 45 minutes to reach Car Nicobar due to the distance between Car Nicobar and the epicentre.

What precautionary measures do you think should be undertaken to avoid being a victim of this fatal wave? Is there any instrument that indicates a tsunami warning?
When a high intensity earthquake occurs, a certain time period has to elapse from the epicentre to the point where the tsunami is likely to occur. If you are near the epicentre, the tsunami may strike almost immediately.

If you know the distance from the epicentre, you will be able to roughly estimate in how much time the tsunami will reach the shore. In the case of Car Nicobar, it took about 45 minutes, but there are instances where it can strike immediately at places closer to the epicentre.  So one should stay away from the seashore. Go to higher ground away from the sea shore till that time period has elapsed.

There are tsunami warning systems and earthquake measuring equipment which is put along shores, like the ones they have in Japan. I am told that they have very efficient tsunami warning systems over there. Whenever a high intensity earthquake occurs, the tsunami warning follows suit.

In India too, a system of tsunami warning has been put into effect after the 2004 episode. People in the villages have their own folklore and are knowledgeable enough to sense when a tsunami can occur. I also feel that awareness about tsunami should be imparted in educational institutions so that more number of people gain knowledge about it. 

You have stated that at times like these, it's easy for one to either become reclusive or fall prey to bad habits. So how does one keep motivated and maintain focus?
I have in fact written about this in my book.  You see we lead a regimented life in the armed forces and our men are kept busy all the time.  

Additionally, when people are away from their families, it is easy for them to become reclusive and fall prey to bad habits. So it is incumbent upon the leadership to keep a keen eye on the men and ensure that they get to relax through rest, recuperation and being together in their free time too. This is called the 'R and R' method which stands for rest and recuperation after a hard day's work.

There would be some kind of entertainment which would help us relax and unwind such as movie screenings. Activities like yoga and beach walks helped us rejuvenate ourselves.  We were also made to communicate to our families through satellite phones.

You were living under the constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. Did the fear of not getting out of this island or seeing your family again ever creep in?
These fears were there at the back of our minds in the initial days. There were certain misguided theories that people spoke of... about how this island had a crack and was on a verge of a collapse and how it would eventually be submerged under water.  These were baseless and false. Though I was never in doubt about any such a thing, the men under me had a feeling like that and we had to dispel their fears.

However after a few days, we acclimatized ourselves mentally to such an extent that the devastation didn't affect us at all.   We just got used to the environment and took it as a part of our work. Once we started focusing on our mission, the fears automatically disappeared.

During the course of your operation, you must have met many tsunami survivors. Though it is said that time is a healer, the scars tend to remain. How do you think these survivors have handled this catastrophe and dealt with their lives?
I know some survivors from the armed forces who have recovered and are leading normal lives. In fact those who have lost their near and dear ones have coped in an admirable manner, to the best of their abilities. 

Initially they were petrified and shaken by this episode but I feel life is too short to keep remembering all the negatives. Today they have become stronger individuals after this catastrophe and have a better understanding of life.

As far as the locals are concerned we found out that they were more resilient than us. In fact when I went and met them again after nine years I observed that they had taken it a lot more in their stride and moved on with their lives.  Having said this however, it is natural that some scars will remain.

There is some statistical evidence of people who now have developed a fear of going near the water. But by and large they have recovered. It is important that we pick up our threads as life must go on.  

Being involved in relief work operations can be gratifying yet mind-numbing at the same time. So how has this whole experience changed your outlook towards life?
It has made me a lot more positive and enabled me to understand the value of life a lot better. You see when we live in cities and comfortable environments, we tend to take things for granted and get impatient the minute something takes us out of our comfort zone. For instance, when there is a power cut or water shortage we tend to complain. 

However, when you live in a place which is devoid of electricity and has limited supply of drinking water, it makes you realise how much we take things and life for granted. You slowly begin to think that there is nothing bad and start seeing the positive aspect to life. So after my experience on the island, I take these minor hitches in city life a lot more in my stride than I would have earlier. 

( See book excerpt : A few Good Men & the Angry Sea )