Indian rescuers found four dead and are searching for 20 others swept away by a sudden surge of water released from a dam while the group was bathing in a river in a northeast Himalayan state.
Rescuers say prospects of finding the rest – engineering students and one professor – alive are bleak.
The group was on a college trip from southern India but were hit by a wall of water after the river Beas, in the mountainous northern state of Himachal Pradesh, spiked dangerously high yesterday.
Some 50 engineering students from an engineering college in the southern city of Hyderabad were travelling on buses to the tourist hill station of Manali. They stopped in the Kullu Valley, some 200 kilometres from state capital Shimla, officials have said.
The group took pictures on the banks when the water hit. Teachers and fellow students told how they screamed at the group about the torrent of water which appeared without warning.
“I did not walk down to the river but saw the sudden rise of the water and screamed to the students to run but the waters quickly engulfed and swept them away,” college staff member A. Aditya told news channel CNN-IBN.
The surge of water occurred when a hydroelectric power project opened its floodgates, sending tonnes of water downstream, officials have said.
Whether warning signals were sounded before the dam released water is a matter of dispute. Local media said residents have launched protests since late yesterday against the lack of warning.
“There was no warning,” said D. Naidu, principal of the VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology, the south Indian college from which 65 students had set off on the trip.
“They were trying to take photos on the banks when they were washed away,” he said, saying he spoke to the survivors.
Others disputed the account.
Mandeep Singh, an engineer on the dam’s power plant, told CNN-IBN that staff sounded warnings before releasing the water and local residents “definitely warned the students to come out of the river” several times.
“I think they were playing in the water,” said a police official, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “The water rose and they were washed away.”
Officials have launched an investigation to determine the sequence of events, said police official Rajesh Kumar, but are now focused on rescue operations to find the rest of the group.
“The chances are minimal” to find them alive, Kumar said, “but we’re trying.”
Soldiers, police and other rescue workers were seen combing the banks of the river, while others in kayaks were paddling slowly downstream, checking around boulders.
Television footage showed soldiers carrying a body bag from the river to a waiting jeep on the road above. Divers have also been called in, an official said.
Parents of the missing students, along with Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and a string of other top politicians were travelling today to the accident site.
Himachal Pradesh and other Himalayan states, including neighbouring Uttarakhand, are home to a string of hydroelectric projects as India rushes to expand power generation to meet rising demand.