Trapped in Chennai: Anguish and hope on Five Furlong Road as trench rescue efforts continue after 72 hours

Two workers are trapped inside a trench dug at a construction site at Velachery's Five Furlong Road junction in Chennai.

ByRoshne Balasubramanian

Published Dec 07, 2023 | 11:25 PMUpdated Dec 07, 2023 | 11:26 PM

Trapped in Chennai: Anguish and hope on Five Furlong Road as trench rescue efforts continue after 72 hours

Yen annan varuvan, yen annan varuvan (My brother will come, my brother will come).”

These are the words that 32-year-old Jayaseelan’s sister Prabha (name changed) has been uttering for the last 72-odd hours, hoping that he would be rescued from a 60-foot-deep trench.

Meenakshi, a relative of Jayaseelan and Prabha, said, “She hasn’t eaten anything or had even a sip of water. We are all in shock, tired, upset, and angry by how slow the work has been.”

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A catastrophic collapse

Water from the surrounding roads streamed into the cavity, progressively inundating it. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

Jayaseelan is one of the two workers trapped inside the trench dug at a construction site of Green Tech Structural Construction located at Velachery’s Five Furlong Road junction.

During the onslaught of Cyclone Michaung and amid heavy rainfall on Monday, 4 December, a section of Five Furlong Road in Velachery succumbed to collapse.

This led to the descent of a container, a structure from the adjacent LPG station, and parts of a bus stand into the resulting pit.

Consequently, water from the surrounding streamed into the cavity, progressively inundating it.

Jayaseelan’s athai (aunt) Santhi has been among his many relatives from Chengalpattu’s Pavunjur who have been occupying the platforms at the Five Furlong junction in Velachery.

“We have been here for over three days. We still haven’t got any good news,” said Santhi, who raised Jayaseelan.

“At a similar platform in Kalpakkam, I would display my vegetables to sell them, and ensure my thangam studied, earned, and made a good life for himself. Now, he is buried deep somewhere, and along with him are our dreams and happiness. When will he be rescued, ma?” she asked, teary-eyed.

“He is a wonderful boy. This year it was his Thala Deepavali (first Deepavali after marriage), so he and his wife purchased clothes for all of us and came to our ooru (town) to give them to us. I haven’t even opened that saree yet,” she said, her voice breaking.

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Duty demands turn detrimental

At 4 am on 4 December, amid the howling sounds of a cyclonic wind, Jayaseelan was woken up by his home’s doorbell in TNHB colony in Velachery.

Jayaseelan’s aunt is among his many relatives from Chengalpattu’s Pavunjur who have been at the Five Furlong Road junction. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

“He works as an electrical engineer and he was asked to come to the site to run or repair a motor,” said his sister.

Jayaseelan, compelled by the demands of his duty, had to leave his pregnant wife behind. Sadly, he hasn’t been able to return to her since.

“Seeing the visuals of the site on a news channel, my sister-in-law rushed to the site. Soon, we received the news and we all came running as well,” said Meenakshi.

Jayaseelan’s wife, who is four months pregnant, has chosen to stay close by, near the platform next to the trench.

“None of us want to leave without seeing our boy. Who would call a worker on a cyclonic day, when the government has announced no one should step out?” lamented Santhi.

“His employer must be punished!” she added.

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Lack of accountability

No one from Green Tech has apparently reached out to the victims’ families so far. Meanwhile, a complaint has been filed with the Guindy police against the company.

“We have not seen any of Jayaseelan’s coworkers. Even his wife has only spoken to people over the phone. So, even if his colleagues were here, in this crowd, we wouldn’t know,” said Meenakshi.

At 4.30 pm on Thursday, we gained access beyond a green net that encircles the site, creating a barrier that hinders visibility for individuals passing along the main road.

The scene at the rescue site is abuzz with diverse workers. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

The scene at the rescue site was abuzz with diverse workers, encompassing members of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) adorned in their recognisable orange suits, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue team, police personnel, labourers, experts from Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC), and representatives from engineering companies.

Each person seemed engrossed, holding a phone and engaged in conversations, presumably exchanging updates, and possibly communicating with higher authorities, all the while manoeuvring through the ongoing rescue operations.

For over two hours, this reporter sat alongside Santhi on the platform. Despite the family’s presence outside the designated perimeter, seeking updates from officials and law enforcement, no one took the time to offer any information or assistance.

The lack of communication became increasingly frustrating for the family. “They can give us some information. No one here seems accountable. If it was the child of a minister, or the chief minister himself, would this be their attitude?” asked a relative, visibly upset.

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Operational challenges

An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, shared insights into the challenging nature of the operation.

“It’s not just about water; we’re contending with slush and remnants of other structures, like the collapsed bus stand and part of the LPG station,” he said.

“We still have a few feet of water remaining to be pumped out, and we’re currently arranging for cranes and larger machinery,” he added.

An NDRF official, during a conversation with South First on Tuesday, mentioned the presence of several iron rods posing challenges in the rescue operations.

“There are several challenges, but we are doing our best,” mentioned an official from the fire and rescue team, but preferred to remain anonymous.

According to the officials, the rescue operation is currently in its final stages.

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An outcry against attitudes

For over two hours, this reporter sat alongside Santhi on the platform. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

However, for Santhi, Meenakshi, Prabha, and all the other relatives of Jayaseelan, the attitudes of those involved in the rescue operations, as well as that of the government, have left them deeply appalled.

“Jayaseelan was planning to quit this job and move back to Chengalpattu. It was his dedication and the situation that made him continue working here,” said Meenakshi.

“His wife is pregnant. He has to manage some loans, and he also has a brother who requires knee surgery. That’s why he didn’t consider the circumstances when work was required. He showed up without hesitation to retain a thankless job,” she explained.

Meanwhile, Meenakshi gently urged Prabha to rise from the chair where she had been sitting since morning.

According to the officials, the rescue operation is currently in its final stages. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

“Come, Prabha, let’s go. It’s getting late, and you need some rest,” she said.

“My brother will come back, and I need to be here!” said Prabha, her emotions close to overwhelming her.

Persuading Prabha to move, Meenakshi glanced at us.

“The dreams of our family have shattered. And yet, no one seems to take notice. After all, we are just the working class, aren’t we?” she asked.

As night descended and floodlights cast their glow over the rescue operation site, Santhi rued, “The company might have suffered replaceable losses if he hadn’t shown up for work that day. But now, Jaya might not even be alive.”

She added: “This is my plea to all the youngsters enduring for their families: No matter how challenging your circumstances, prioritise your safety above all else. Nothing else matters.”