Photo finish: An ailing child, a sinking bridge and a superman

Photo finish: An ailing child, a sinking bridge and a superman
Sooraj and father Vijayaraj on Cheruthoni bridge. Photo: Rijo Joseph.
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A National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel running over the Cheruthoni bridge in Kerala's Idukki district with a child held close to his body as a swollen Cheruthoni river rises like a mighty wave is one of the most iconic moments of the 2018 August floods. Seconds after they had crossed, the marauding river crashed over the bridge.

The NDRF man, constable Kanhaiya Kumar, is now posted at the fourth NDRF battalion at Arakkonam, near Chennai, in Tamil Nadu. Schoolchildren in Cheruthoni now call him Superman, auto-drivers at Cheruthoni junction told us. Reason: the iconic image shows a blue cloak like a superman cape billowing behind him as Kumar rushes across the bridge with the child. "That was my raincoat," Kumar told us from Arakkonam over phone in the last week of July. He was in a hospital when Onmanorama called him. "I came to see a doctor for a persistent back pain," he said.

The child Kumar carried over to safety lives right above the Cheruthoni bridge. His name is Sooraj. He is now four years old, and is in LKG. Sooraj's house is along the narrow road spiralling up from the Cheruthoni bridge towards Kumily. The house can be reached by walking up a slippery winding path off the narrow road.

It is a small half-finished concrete house, in a plot of just about two cents. The plot is bordered with flowers, and ducks were all over the place. There were three goats in a shed at the right corner. On the left, inside a kennel, was a barking Alsation. Straight left, at the far corner, was a small fish pond.

Sooraj was running around the house when we clambered up the path to his house. He was after the ducks. His mother was calling out to him to get dressed for school. But he seemed not to listen. His mother, Manju, can never forget the day. It was August 10. "The boy was having fever for some days and suddenly on that day he started to have problems breathing. I didn't know what to do. His father was not here," Manju said.

Photo finish: An ailing child, a sinking bridge and a superman
(Left) Sooraj with his parents Vijayaraj and Manju. (Right) Kripal and Kanhaiya Kumar, the NDRF men who took an unwell-Sooraj across the Cheruthoni bridge braving gushing waters. Photo: Jibin Chempola

His father Vijayaraj, who works as a helper in construction sites, was near the Cheruthoni bridge hoping to catch the sight of a lifetime. "We were told that all the five shutters of Cheruthoni dam would be opened that day. I was there to watch it," Vijayaraj said. He had all the time in the world. It had been raining continuously and he was out of work for the past 10 days.

When the shutters did not open till about 11 am, he went back home to have lunch. "There I found my child with heavy fever. He couldn't breathe properly. I covered him in a cloth and rushed out of the house," Vijayaraj said. It is nearly two kilometres to the Cheruthoni bridge. He ran all the way in the blinding rain.

By the time he reached the bridge, all the five shutters were about to be opened. "A policeman blocked my way, said the bridge had been closed. I told him my child had to be taken to the hospital immediately. He contacted his senior on the other side," Vijayaraj said.

In about two minutes, he saw two NDRF personnel rushing towards them from the other side of the bridge. It was Kanhaiya Kumar and Kripal Singh. Kanhaiya Kumar, too, did not waste much time. "I saw a man with a child on the other side. I knew there was some problem. The policeman standing near us said the child had fever and had to be taken to the hospital. I asked my senior for permission and rushed to the other side. I took the child from the man and started running back. I told them not to fear and asked them to follow. I held the child close to my chest and kept an umbrella open over the child," Kumar said.

Photo finish: An ailing child, a sinking bridge and a superman
Kanhaiya Kumar and Kripal near the Cheruthoni bridge last year. Photo: Jibin Chempola

All this while, Malayala Manorama chief photographer Rijo Joseph was some 20 metres away, on the third floor balcony of a building along the left bank of the Cheruthoni river. He had a distant but a rain-blurred view of the bridge below. "It was raining heavily and the sight was already scary. The rushing waters were uprooting the trees near the Cheruthoni bus stand, and the bus stand itself was being gradually run over by the rising river," Rijo said.

There was a huge crowd of locals near the bridge, all of them, like Vijayaraj, waiting to witness the opening of the shutters. "We were even told that there were clapping when the waters swept away the trees. The locals evidently were under the impression that nothing would happen," Rijo said.

But at his perch on top, Rijo sensed the worst. "The water was now flowing just under the bridge. At times it even splashed over. Any time the bridge would be under water," Rijo said.

Photo finish: An ailing child, a sinking bridge and a superman
Sooraj's mother Manju holding a calender featuring the iconic picture.

The police had by then blocked the entrance to the bridge, and had pushed the onlookers away. "For sometime there was nothing on the bridge, just the swirling rain and the madly flowing river. Suddenly we noticed two men running to the left. I saw one of them stopping mid way, going back hurriedly, picking up something that he might have lost while running and then rushing after the other man. We did not think much about this. But soon we found four or five people running back. I had no idea what was happening but I kept clicking," Rijo said.

He then checked his slightly grainy images for a closer view. "I saw that the man had a child pressed close to his chest," he said. In the chaos that day, he was not able to meet the NDRF braveheart or the child. "I have still not been able to meet any of them, not Kanhaiya Kumar and not even the child and his father," Rijo said.

In the photograph, Vijayaraj is the third man on the bridge. The man running just ahead of him is his friend Kalesh. "While running I felt water up to my ankles," Vijayaraj said.

Photo finish: An ailing child, a sinking bridge and a superman
Playful Sooraj at his home.

That was Kanhaiya Kumar's first day in Kerala. Like Sooraj's mother Manju, he too remembers the date like it was the most important day of his life. "It was August 10," he said. "I was at the bridge from the morning. A big tree the river had brought had got stuck at the bridge. I bend down the bridge and tied a rope around the tree for the Fire Force vehicle to tug it away. The rope snapped. It was then that I saw a man with a child on the other side," Kumar said.

After first aid was administered, the child was taken in an autorickshaw to the taluk hospital nearby. "Seeing me with the child on the other side, a driver had kept the autorickshaw ready," Vijayaraj said. As the autorickshaw started, Vijayaraj turned back. "I saw the bridge buried under five to six feet of water," he said.

Rijo said that the river flooded the bridge right after the men had crossed over. "I suppose the fifth shutter was already opened when these men were running across the bridge with the child. A minute after they crossed, the river swept over the bridge," Rijo said.

For Vijayaraj, the autorickshaw driver too might have felt like divine intervention. "I ran out of my house without taking any money and so I couldn't pay the driver. He too did not have any work that day and still he did not insist," Vijayaraj said. He paid the kind driver later, after the rains stopped and he got some work.

Sooraj was given some medicine and discharged from the hospital that evening itself. "My boy was then taking mother's milk. So the doctor asked me to take the child back to his mother. There was no way Manju could reach the hospital," Vijayaraj said. Without money, he had no choice but to walk back to Cheruthoni with his ailing child in his arms.

His house was right across the bridge but it was under water now. "A policeman at Cheruthoni town sensed that I had no money and gave me Rs 100. I used this to somehow get my child back home by night through a roundabout route," Vijayaraj said. His house is just 2 km from the bridge. But on August 10, he had to travel 22 km to reach home.

The fever persisted though Sooraj had no trouble breathing. On August 13, a landslide struck near Vijayaraj's house killing four people. Vijayaraj and family were shifted to a relief camp at Naradakkanam nearby. "At the camp, there were doctors and my child gradually got better," Vijayaraj said.

Kanhaiya Kumar said he had not seen the child and father after he took them to safety. "I don't even remember the faces," Kumar said. "We were shifted from Cheruthoni that day itself and were taken to various other parts. I don't know the names of the places that we had worked during the floods," Kumar said.

He is proud of his work during the floods but he has a regret. "Except for newspaper people, no one from the government had called me up to offer even a token appreciation," he said.

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