Mr.V.M.Nizar, Assistant Lightkeeper hesitated a moment before filling the weather condition column in the log book. Since he could not find the precise word to impress the present weather condition, he wrote 'Rough' as he had been doing for the last 7 days. It was the 18th day of November 1977, and time 22.00Hrs at Nagayalanka Lighthouse in India. He signed duty off, handing over charges to Mr.Ramarathnam, his colleague who also was of his same age, 26 yrs.
The moment he stepped out of the tower, wind speed made him run towards his quarters. After lighting a hurricane lantern and stove, he heated up the food which was cooked and kept in the afternoon and slowly ate it.
Waiting for the next radio news bulletin, he thought about his present life. An estuary called 'ETHIRMUNDI' where he lives now is inhabited except for the lighthouse staff. Ration and post come from Nagayalanka, the nearest village by boat through Krishna River and it takes 4 hours to reach there. The present lighthouse was commissioned in the year 1973 near the abandoned light 'False Devil Point'. Nobody lives here with family due to lack of facilities, but being a bachelor and having lived there for two years he is acclimatized.
Along with the regular news bulletin at 23.00hrs. from All India Radio, there was a warning of a cyclone, passing through that area within 24 hours. To discuss the matter with the Head Lightkeeper, Mr.Raja Rao, he came out, but the darkness inside the HLK quarters made him change his mind and he went back to sleep.
Next morning, he observed that the wind speed was increased and it might be anything above 100km/hr. Before reporting for the maintenance works at 09.00hrs, he had to cook breakfast and lunch. Hence after taking a shower he entered the kitchen. There wasn't much left on the kitchen racks, the vegetable rack was empty, for the supply boat hasn't come, due to bad weather for the last 8 days. It made him run to his backyard to pluck some beans. The complete garden was destroyed by wind. There he observed with uneasiness that the sea was so rough that seawater started to enter the compound, which is hardly 1.5m above the M.S.L.
While eating 'Upma', a South Indian dish, as breakfast, he tuned his radio. There again was a staunch warning from the weathermen about a cyclone. Since he never before experienced a cyclone in his life, he was not panicked, but enthusiastic.
At 09.00, wearing raincoat over his working dress for maintenance, he opened his door and was stunned to see that the water level has already reached his veranda and sea waves were directly entering the lighthouse compound and wind speed may be above 150km/hr. He shouted for Mr.Ramarathnam, who stays in the other part of the twin quarters. Mr.Ramarathnam shouted back that he was plugging the gaps of his door shutters to stop water entering the room. Nizar opened one of his landside windows and stood there observing the harshness of the wind.
There was a knock on the door at 09.00hrs. and it was Mr. Raja Rao who was in wet clothes. A man of 4'9", Mr.Raja Rao had to half swim through the 3' high water in the compound. Mr.Raja Rao ordered all to evacuate the quarters immediately and to take shelter in the tower. Moving against the wind and waves, it took around an hour for them to reach the tower which was hardly 40' away and all three lost their footwear on the way. The chain of three, led by Mr.Nizar, the tallest among them, relaxed a little on reaching the tower base. A moment's carelessness flew Mr.Raja Rao out of balance and he fell into the water. In the nick of time, Mr. Ramarathnam caught his leg, otherwise Mr.Raja Rao would have lost his life, but that action threw the other two also on the floor. Suddenly a strong hand from inside the tower pulled all of them inside. It was Mr.Subha Rao, the sweeper, who was stranded inside when it came time for sweeping, in the early morning. All four were safe inside the tower except for the water soaked clothing and bruised hands and legs of Mr.Raja Rao. The intermittent rain had turned to a heavy downpour now.
Just before closing the tower doors, there was a heavy flash of light and an ear deafening sound from the sea and the complete area was filled with fog . If it was lightening and thunder, it was a hundred times stronger than any lightening and thunder they had ever experienced. The violent wind was shaking the tower and they were frightened, and stopped climbing the steps at 30 feet. Nizar opened a land-side window and sat on the sill observing the rising water level and increasing wind speed. A strong undertow tore the door shutters off the tower and were gone. At 11.00hrs. two big Casurina trees in the lighthouse compound uprooted, and after a while the asbestos roof of the oil store came out, along with the rafters, and flew away like a space craft.
By 12.00hrs. the water level was around 20 feet, some lantern glass panes broke and the lantern room door opened due to wind pressure, and started banging on the Murat plates. The shaking of the tower in the wind splashed the mercury out of the lantern trough and when it started raining again, water and mercury started flowing from the top down the steps of tower and there was no place for the men to even sit.
Without proper clothing, food and a fire to heat, it was difficult for them to keep body heat while standing barefoot in the flowing water. So they stood closer and closer to reduce the loss of heat.
When he glanced at the others faces, Nizar could read silent prayers all over. He, being a Muslim, and the others Hindus and their Mother tongue different, he dropped the idea of a joint prayer and started prayers 'To Allah," taught by his mother and Mullahs. After repeating the prayers he knew, several times, he started Hindu and Christian prayers, which he'd learned from his friends and neighbors. Even though he was not sure which God could save him, he was sure that 'God' only could save him from this hell.
Climate became calm after 23.00hrs, when the eye of the Cyclone passed that area, except for the water level of 35 feet inside the lighthouse compound. The return wind started after an hour and everything was over by dawn of the 20th of November, '77.
At 06.00hrs. on top of the tower they observed two broken lantern glasses, a trough without mercury and a twisted lantern door hanging on a hinge. The 1st order optic was standing perfect except for being chipped in two places.
At the bottom, complete buildings were destroyed. Doors and window shutters were gone, so were all the stores, spare tools and their personal effects and rations. The 800 liter capacity steel tanks of kerosene were flat on the floor and contents washed out and the water tanks were salted by the sea. There was no water, food, clothing or communication facility. So they decided to abandon the station and move to the nearest fishermen's hamlet, 20km away. They went bare footed at 6.30hrs., and the chilly breeze and drizzling followed them all through their way to 'ETTUMUKHA', their destination.
They had to cross three straits of Krishna River to reach 'Ettumukha' and only Mr.Subharao could swim. Mr.Subharao, a local fisherman with very strong body, helped the lightkeepers to cross the straits in spite of heavy currents. On the thorny bushes along their way were numerous dead bodies of humans and animals. Some were half sunk in the mud and stood like mile stones.
After a tough journey, reaching 'Ettumukha' around 19.30hrs., they were stunned to see that there was no village except for some big Tamarind trees which were not uprooted by the wind. All the 300 huts made of mud and thatched roof were washed out by the sea without keeping a trace and around 1500 inmates of those huts except for a handful of them. the lucky were those who could take shelter on the big Tamarind trees which survived the cyclone. Some people who came from distant villages in search of relatives had already started rehabilitation. They brought rice and drinking water and started cooking the rice. Seeing the lightkeepers, the villagers first feared to approach them judging them as ghosts. But on the realization of their escape from the fury of nature, they burst into joy. They started hugging the lightkeepers with tears of joy and some of them fell on their legs treating the lightkeepers as 'God's' own people or saints.
The lightkeepers could not control their tears before the histrionic cry of Mankamma, the daughter in law of the waterman Narasimhalu of their station. Mr.Narasimhalu, his wife, son and grandson were missing and she was the lone member of that family who survived. The waves took her to a tall Tamarind tree where she grabbed a branch and stayed throughout the night.
The lightkeepers took their first glass of water after 36 hours there, and had some cooked rice. Their wet clothes were dry now and villagers gave them shawls and pieces of plastic papers to cover them during the drizzle. There were no tents and shelters and hence they managed to pass off the night sitting under the sky.
The next day, 21st of November, they started their journey to Nagayalanka which was 16km away. There was no trace of the Jeep track which existed there and the path was a hell with fallen trees, thorny bushes and dead bodies everywhere. Their legs were bleeding when they reached Nagayalanka in the evening. The medical attention, warm clothes, good food and the hospitality of the villagers were awaiting them. Of course there were hazards of cyclone there also, but the sea water had not reached there. After getting their wounds dressed and taking good food, they slept with peace after 60hrs.
The official figures of that cyclone was wind around 300km/hr, tidal waves reached up to 40km inside from the sea,. and 15,000 dead. But the news agencies reported the death toll as above 50,000. The Army was called for help and they heaped dead bodies using poclains(?) and burnt them with petrol. Several dead bodies lying near the lighthouse were never removed and they laid there for months.
After taking support from the Regional Directorate at Madras, the lightkeepers returned to the lighthouse on the 23rd of November in a mechanized boat and after taking the list of items required they returned back on the 24th of November.
Collecting all the required spares and tools, the lightkeepers and technicians went to Nagayalanka again on the 18th of December, and the light was reexhibited on the 30th of December '77.
After completing their works, Nizar fell sick with a bacterial infection in his stomach and was hospitalized for a month. After taking another two months' rest, he reported back for duty at Minicoy lighthouse, his new station on transfer.
I.C.R. Prasad is a keeper at the Alleppey Lighthouse in Alleppey, India. We thank him for sharing this true story with us.
V. M. Nizar, assistant keeper, survived the cyclone which hit the Nagayalanka Lighthouse and killed nearly 15,000 people in the surrounding area.
This story appeared in the
December 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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