Tragedy at Thangu, North Sikkim, 31 March 1998

Tragedy at Thangu, North Sikkim, 31 March 1998

The recent tragedy at Sonam Post in Siachen brought to my mind memories of a similar, but bigger tragedy at Thangu, North Sikkim on 31 Mar 1998. My search on the internet gave me very little information. The information given in the blog relies almost totally on my memory. The blog highlights as to how much things have changed in 18 years and also that such tragedies are a part of Army life.

Thangu Tragedy

Thangu Transit Camp was the second stage acclimatization camp for troops operating in the Tibet Plateau region of North Sikkim.31 Mar 1998 was an unusually bright sunny day at Thangu. It was very windy (nothing unusual). There had been heavy snowfall in recent days (nothing unusual). The combination of bright Sunshine coupled with the heavy wind proved to be a fatal combination for Thangu Transit Camp. We did not experience a conventional avalanche. A heavy mass of snow got cut out by the strong Sunlight and got blown by the strong wind. This mass of snow came and buried the entire transit camp. My memory tells that over 30 Defence personnel died in the tragedy. The figure available from the internet is much lower.

Unique Survival

We had a case of a unique survival in this tragedy. One soldier, buried under the snow, stayed alive because a table and a suitcase created air space for him to sit. He ate snow to remain hydrated for 3 days. Fortunately for him the dozer operator who was removing snow from the area spotted his raised arm and stopped the dozer and he was rescued by manual digging. He not only survived the avalanche, but also escaped the risk of being crushed by the dozer. The soldier survived but took time to recover from the psychological trauma he had undergone.

No News!

I was located about 20 km South of the Thangu Transit Camp and was involved in the rescue effort. 3 days later, when telephone communication was restored I spoke to my wife and family. I was thinking that they would be relieved to know that I was alive and would have been greatly worried. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they did not even know that such a tragedy had occurred! The item was not news worthy for TV/radio news or central newspapers. There was no social media. How different it is today, 18 years later!
Our Defence Minister, George Fernandes, arguably the best Defence Minister in independent India’s history, visited us and energized the rescue operations.

Conclusion: Thangu Tragedy

Transmission of information has been revolutionised since then. Not only India, but the whole world knows about the tragedy. Hanumanthappa has become a household name. As regards the name of the survivor of the Thangu tragedy, even I do not remember his name!
A fact remains that so many of Defence personnel risk lives on a daily basis, due to natural disasters, weather and of course enemy and terrorist actions.

Request: There would be others who would be having knowledge of this tragedy. I request them to share the details please.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Ahead of Thangu is Giagong, which you could say was the place you broke out of the line of the Greater Himalayas, the all imposing Kanchengiao on the right (East) and the Chomo Yomo and the Kanchendzonga to the Left (West /Northwest). The break out was on to the only portion of the Tibetan Plateau which is part of India. From Giagong the Track meanders on, climbing up to 18000 feet where you reached the place called Bunker.
    My Battalion, The Eleventh Battalion of The MAHAR Regt, of which I was the Second-in-Command, was located at Bunker when the Avalanche occurred. The Transit Camp, Signal Detachment and the Rear elements of the Battalion took the hit and were completely buried under tons of snow which came down in exactly in one second. The casualty figures were 1 Officer and 11 Soldiers of the Battalion and 10 Signalmen from the det. The force of the Avalanche was so strong that the positive wind pressure which preceded the avalanche blew a derelict Helicopter which was parked on the Track across the valley to the other side of the River. I was holding fort at Bunker while the Commanding Officer Col Bhanu Prakash was at Gangtok for his Medicals.
    It was very tragic. The only survivor was a soldier by name Chatura Nayak who ate ice to avoid dehydration and survived 3 days. He was fit as a fiddle before the helicopter reached Gangtok. I’m going to refer this post to Col Bhanu also as he was the person who got there and organised the search and Evacuation. A small memorial was made for those who died at the spot by the Battalion. All records are available regarding this tragedy and can easily be made available.

    • Thanks for your invaluable comments Sir! I was the officiating BM at that time. My official appointment was A Coy Cdr in 20 PUNJAB. The BM, Maj Seth had HAPO & was also at Gangtok. Cdr was on leave. It was a great tragedy for 11 MAHAR. I am impressed as to how you got to read this blog! Thanks!

  2. Sir, very right. I left Thangu on 30th March 98. And very next day it happened. Simon sir was then 2IC of 11 Mahar. I served in the same Bn.

  3. The death of Major Dogra in the recent avalanche in the same area brought me to your blog. I was officiating as Commander and based at Mile 13 at that time. I came by heptr a day after the avalanche to oversee the rescue efforts.
    When the dozer blade was cutting through the MI Room shelter loud shouting was heard by me and I rushed to the spot to witness an arm slowly trying to signal through a small opening of the snow covered shelter. After 2 days of rescue efforts we were dejected and had lost hope of any survivors and this miracle of seeing a soldier alive sent a wave of enthusiasm in all of us. Thereafter we proceeded slowly to dig out Sep Nayak from the deep snow. Since a heptr could only come next morning the RMO ensured that hypothermia did not set in till he was evacuated. He went as a sitting casualty and his waving to us from the heptr is still etched in my memory…..Jisko rakhe sayeain mar sake na koe…….

  4. The recent death of Maj Dogra in an avalanche brought back memories of the casualties suffered by 11 MAHAR in an avalanche in the same area and I happened to look up your blog.
    I was officiating as Cdr and based with the unit at Mile 13 when the avalanche struck Thangu Transit Camp. I reached the area the next day by heptr to oversee the rescue efforts.
    After 2 days of rescue ops we had given up hope of any survivors and were very dejected.
    When the dozer was cutting through the MI Room shelter loud voices were heard and we all rushed to the spot. What we witnessed was an unbelievable sight – a hand slowly moving(as if trying to signal) from a small gap in the snow covered damaged shelter. We were all filled with josh and slowly dug through the snow,manually, to bring out Sep Nayak alive, a real miracle.
    As it was evening by the time we could get him out of the shelter and evacuation by heptr was only possible next morning, the RMO gave him critical first aid care to see that hypothermia does not set in.
    He was evacuated the next morning in a sitting posture and the sight of him waving to us from the airborne heptr is still etched in my mind.

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