The Timber Trail cable car rescue operation of Monday comes 30 years after the last such incident which took place in 1992 and for which the Army and the Indian Air Force had to be mobilised.
Eleven people, including one attendant, got stuck in the cable car at the Timber Trail resort, on the outskirts of the industrial township of Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh, around 35 km from Chandigarh, on October 13, 1992 after a cable wire snapped leaving the cable car dangling 1300 feet above the Kaushalya river.
A subsequent rescue operation mounted by the IAF and Army had to be spread over two days and it was on October 14 that the last of the tourists, most of them young couples, were pulled out of the stuck cable car.
For Swadesh Talwar, former Photo Editor of The Indian Express at Chandigarh, Monday’s incident brings with it a distinct feeling of déjà vu as he had covered the accident in 1992.
Now retired and settled in Chandigarh, Talwar remembers each detail of the incident as if it took place yesterday. “There were two cables which the cable car was connected to and one of them snapped and got entangled in a tree. It was in fact a stroke of luck and had the cable not got snagged in some object the cable car would have slid down to the base station and smashed into pieces,” recalled Talwar. There was considerable panic among the occupants of the cable car and the attendant jumped out of it and died as a result of the fall. He was the only fatal casualty of the entire incident.
The HQs of Army’s Western Command at Chandimandir, nearby, was alerted and a rescue team comprising personnel from 1 Para Commando Battalion stationed in Himachal (now 1 Special Forces) and an IAF helicopter team from 152 Helicopter Unit stationed at a nearby air force base were despatched for the rescue.
Group Captain Fali Homi Major was the commanding officer of the helicopter unit and oversaw the rescue operation himself. He went on to become the Chief of Air Staff in the rank of Air Chief Marshal, the first helicopter pilot to be appointed to that post.
The parachute battalion was being commanded by Col, later Lt Gen PC Bhardwaj, who also arrived at Timber Trail to oversee the rescue operations. Major Ivan Crasto was made in charge of the rescue team which would be lowered down from the helicopter to the cable car in order to help winch the occupants through a helicopter.
Residents of village Banog, situated below the Timber Trail, describe the incident.https://t.co/N9ktVEpHxu pic.twitter.com/bcyjDnQOud
— The Indian Express (@IndianExpress) June 20, 2022
“The IAF helicopters tried to rescue the same evening but there were high velocity winds blowing in the valley due to which they were facing problems. Major Ivan Crasto volunteered to stay with the occupants of the cable car overnight so that they did not lose confidence,” says Talwar.
Along with the MI-17 helicopter which was being piloted by Group Captain Fali Major there were a Cheetah and Chetak helicopter too involved in the rescue. Wing Commander Subash Chander and Flight Lieutenant P Upadhyaya were also part of the IAF rescue team.
Major Crasto was helped by Havildar Krishan Kumar, also of 1 Para, who was winched up in the helicopter and thereafter served as heliborne controller for the operation. Attached with just a sling to the helicopter, Krishan Kumar remained dangerously hanging out during each rescue circuit to guide the winch accurately between haulage cables and prevent any entanglements with the helicopter’s rotors.
“Major Crasto stood on the roof of the cable car and took out the people one by one. When the helicopter used to come back for each rescue attempt, I used to go down in the valley by around 400 feet so that the helicopter and rescue operation got a clear background of the sky,” says Swadesh Talwar.
For the IAF rescue team too the operation was a delicate task as the helicopters had to be manouvred with precision and brought close to the cables with the rotors being just three to five metres away from the cables at one point. It was a difficult task under the wind conditions.
All ten occupants of the cable car were brought out successfully and Maj Ivan Crasto, later Colonel, was awarded the second highest peacetime gallantry award, Kirti Chakra. He is now settled in Australia. Group Captain Fali Major, Wing Commander Chander and Havildar Krishan were awarded Shaurya Chakras while Flt Lt P Upadhyaya was awarded Vayu Sena Medal.
Swadesh Talwar’s photographs were much appreciated by 1 Para and he not only gifted the entire album to the unit but also got a blow-up poster made of one of the key photographs from his own expenses and gifted it to the unit.
“I hope 1 Para has preserved these gifts, I have never visited their location ever. My advice to anyone stuck in a similar situation would be to show patience. Help will come. Do not panic,” says Swadesh Talwar.