On the evening of 7 May, Kunnummal Saithalavi heard sirens of ambulances heading towards the coast of his town in the southern Indian state of Kerala and feared the worst.
Mr Saithalavi, 48, had been trying to get in touch with his family to no avail. “I tried them on three different mobile phones they used [but got no response],” he says.
Several members of his family had gone to Thooval Theeram, a popular tourist destination near an estuary in Tanur, a coastal town in the Malappuram district.
The night ended with horrifying news for Mr Saithalavi.
Eleven members of his family – including his wife and four children – were among 22 people who died after a packed tourist boat capsized here.
Mr Saithalavi and his younger brother Kunnummal Siraj lived with their families and their mother at their ancestral home in Puthankadappuram, just a few kilometres away from Thooval Theeram.
Their sister was visiting the family when they decided to visit the tourist destination.
The family also invited their adopted brother Kunnumal Jabir and his family, their neighbour Ashifa and her two children to join them on the excursion. The 19-member group went to the estuary on Sunday evening.
Mr Saithalavi says he joined his family at the spot and spent some time with them before leaving to meet a friend living nearby.
“I warned them not to take the boat ride as I was sure boating at that time would not be safe,” he says.
His neighbour, Ms Ashifa, who had accompanied the family says the group was about to return home that evening when boat operators offered huge discounts on tickets and free tickets for children.
“It was an attractive offer,” she says. “We accepted it but I changed my mind because of safety concerns.”
Mr Saithalavi’s family got on the double-decker boat for a ride.
But a few minutes later, Ms Ashifa who’d been waiting for them on the shore with her children, heard of the accident. “I was in shock,” she says.
The boat had reportedly carried about 50 people, or double its capacity, when it overturned on Sunday night.
The operator did not have permission to take the boat into the waters after dusk, The Indian Express newspaper reported.
Officials say overcrowding caused the boat to capsize. Many passengers were trapped under the vessel. The darkening night sky hindered rescue efforts, local media said.
Mr Saithalavi was at the terrace of his friend NP Koya’s house at the time of the accident. When calls to his family did not go through, both of them rushed to the coast.
“I feared something tragic had happened to my family,” Mr Saithalavi says.
Once at the estuary, they took a boat docked on the shore and rushed to rescue accident victims.
“When we reached the spot in our small boat, there were many others who’d come there to help with the rescue,” Mr Koya says “He [Saithalavi] was in panic when we reached the spot.”
Mr Saithalavi says he was sure that his family was trapped under the boat and jumped into the water. He brought back one body to the boat, only to realise it was his niece.
“The moment he realised that the body we recovered was his niece’s, he lost all confidence,” Mr Koya says. Dazed with shock, Mr Saithalavi was taken back to the shore.
Mr Saithalavi had four daughters and his brother Mr Siraj had three, including an eight-month-old baby. He and Mr Siraj lost their wives and children in the accident. Their brother Mr Jabir also lost his wife and son.
Four persons in the family survived the accident – their sister Nusrat, her 18-month-old daughter Ayisha and two of Mr Jabir’s children, Jarsha and Janna. They are undergoing treatment at a hospital.
Mr Saithalavi’s niece Ummu Habeeba KP says his daughters were his strength. “They always told him that they would help him by getting good jobs by studying hard, ” she says.
His eldest daughter Hasna had dreamed of becoming a medical professional and was waiting for the results of her final school exams.
Ms Habeeba says the family had been trying to build a home for the last three years. Their current home did not have enough space for everyone, with the children in the family sleeping in the kitchen due to shortage of space.
“The children left the world leaving behind the dreams of providing a good life to their parents and a good home,” Ms Habeeba says.
Source : BBC News