Mumbai/Thane, July 27 (IANS) The Indian Air Force (IAF), Navy, Army and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) launched a massive aerial and surface operation to rescue an estimated 1,500 passengers stranded in the Mahalaxmi Express on the flooded railway tracks at Vangani here on Saturday, officials said.
Following an SOS from the Maharashtra government to the Defence authorities, at least two helicopters, including a Seaking and a MI17, with relief material and personnel were despatched from Mumbai to the site.
Simultaneously, teams of the NDRF reached the train from Badlapur, around 7 kms away in inflatable rubber boats and started extracting the passengers from the train, which left Mumbai for Kolhapur on Friday around 8 p.m.
The teams, which included divers with special equipment and medical aid, managed to rescue around 120 passengers, including women, children and toddlers, by noon though work was hampered due to continuing heavy rain.
Officials said it may take several hours to complete the rescue operation depending on the rain and the flood waters.
The IAF/NDRF teams also brought to safety a group of around seven passengers, who got down from the train to start walking towards Badlapur station but found themselves stuck in the swirling flood waters, running between 3-6 feet, for over two hours until some local villagers threw ropes at them.
Torrential rain since the past three days in Mumbai, Palghar, Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri, and in some areas over 100 mm, have led to chaos on the roads, partially hitting rail operations and affecting around two dozen flights at the Mumbai Airport in the past 24 hours.
On Saturday, Guardian Minister for Thane Eknath Gaikwad said two helicopters were despatched for the rescue operation, along with eight NDRF teams on the ground from Mumbai, Thane and Pune which were rushed there with inflatable rubber boats and other equipment.
The government response came after hundreds of panicking, starving and thirsting passengers on the Mumbai-Kolhapur train started sending out videos appealing for help on the social media videos as the water levels continued to rise around the train.
They said they had no drinking water or food since nearly 15 hours and no escape route as the train was practically cut off with five-six feet water on all sides.
The towns of Badlapur, Ulhasnagar, Vangani were practically underwater since early today as heavy rain lashed the region, flooding local rivers and other water bodies.
The Central Railway (CR) warned the Mahalaxmi Express passengers against stepping out of the trains in view of the dangerous water levels outside and requested them to wait for help which was on the way.
The CR added that a relief train has been stationed at Badlapur to ferry the passengers, along with food, water and medical supplies, besides making arrangements to take the passengers onward to Kolhapur.
While the city’s lifeline, the suburban trains in Mumbai functioned with delays of 15-20 minutes on Western Railway and CR, the latter had to cancel services between Karjat-Kalyan (in Thane) owing to floods and waterlogging on the tracks since Friday.
Though the country’s commercial capital continued to get intermittent showers and rain, the worst-hit were Thane and Ratnagiri with towns of Ulhasnagar, Murbad, Badlapur, Tiwala, Vangani, Khed, Chiplun and surroundings practically submerged.
In Mumbai, Minister of Education Ashish Shelar authorised school and college principals to declare a holiday to ensure students are not inconvenienced if heavy rain continued.