THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Agonized shrieks and wails filled the night in Kerala's Periyar tiger reserve in Thekkady where at least 34 vacationers drowned when a boat capsized on Tuesday evening. The toll is expected to rise as search operations slowed due to adverse weather and fading light.
The tragedy occured at 5.15pm at Manakkavala, roughly 5km from the main boat landing station in Thekkady on the Periyar Lake formed by Mullaperiyar dam bordering Tamil Nadu. The boat sunk at a place where the waters enter TN under strong currents. The identity of those killed — mostly tourists from north India, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — is yet to be established. About 20 persons have been rescued, but fate of others is yet unknown. There were foreign tourists on board the ill-fated 'Jala Kanyaka' belonging to the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation.
State water resources minister N K Premachandran said the accident occurred when tourists moved all of a sudden to one side of the double-decker boat to see a herd of bisons that had emerged from their forest habitat to graze on the grass. As a result, the boat lost its balance and sank stern down, he said. The minister also said the vessel was fit.
Shabir Talim (62), a businessman from Mumbai, was on the upper deck with his wife Nishreen. He told TOI that the accident occured when the driver took a sharp right turn. The bisons, he said were towards the left side of the boat. The couple knew swimming and thus saved themselves.
The state governement has ordered a probe. Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan rang up Union Home Minister A K Antony, who in turn asked the Southern Naval Command to render all possible assistance. A team of Navy divers and an advance light helicopter with floodlights was rushed to help in search operations.
There were also conflicting reports about the number of people on board. While some said there were only 64, others pegged the number at 76. KTDC chairman Cheriyan Philip said there were 74 tourists. Eyewitnesses said there was no life jacket on board, only rubber tubes