Malappuram | Auto Rickshaw driver Shahul Hameed had the most traumatic ride on his three-wheeler to Malappuram's Thoovaltheeram beach, on Sunday. Just as Hameed reached the beach, three children were fished out of the water and piled in his autorickshaw to be rushed to the nearest hospital with a hope to save them. In all the commotion, it took a few minutes before he realised the children that lay motionless in the passenger seat behind were his sister's.
On that ill-fated Sunday evening, the tour boat operator's "last trip" gimmick saw the vessel being packed beyond its capacity. Warnings from bystanders of the boat tilting to one side before it took off on its fatal trip fell on deaf ears.
Hameed rushed to the Thoovaltheeram beach in his three-wheeler on Sunday night on hearing of the tragic accident and rescuers piled into his vehicle some children who included three of his family.
His sister and her three children were among 11 members of his family, hailing from Parappanangadi here, who died in the tragedy that claimed 22 lives, majority of whom were women and children.
"I rushed to the beach in my auto rickshaw on hearing of the accident. When I reached there, rescuers put some children taken out of the water in my auto and I rushed them to the nearest hospital. It was on reaching the hospital that I realised they were my sister's children. My sister and her three children died in the accident," he told a news channel.
Four others from his sister's family and three relatives also died in the tragedy which brings to the fore several violations of the rules governing boat rides by the owner of the vessel and those who were operating it.
A similar tragedy unfolded in Chettipadi village here where four members of a family--a woman and her three children, died in the accident.
Two others of the family are reportedly hospitalised and are reported to be critical.
Being a Sunday and also school vacation season, many families like that of Hameed and the one from Chettipadi had gone to the Thoovaltheeram for the boat ride -- the closest amusement spot from their homes.
While it turned into a distressing incident for those two families and many others, some had decided not to board the boat at the last moment, only to feel relieved over the decision.
Two brothers, Isaac and Ibrahim, from Kondotty here had gone to the area with their families for a good time on a weekend holiday. However, it was a difference of opinion among them -- over how safe the boat ride would be -- that resulted in them avoiding the same fate of the 22 who perished in the accident.
The brothers told a news channel they were there only for the children to have fun at the amusement park, but someone informed them that there were boat rides also which the adults could enjoy.
"However, there was a difference of opinion among us about its safety and therefore, we decided to avoid it. We went back to the area where the children can play and while being there, we heard a boat had overturned in the river. Later when people were brought ashore in smaller boats did we realise it was the same vessel that we were supposed to board that had sank," they said.
They added the boat was "overcrowded" and "packed beyond capacity" and that the person operating it was exhorting more people to board it by saying it was the last trip.
While it did turn out to be the last trip for many, Shamsudeen and his family group of eight too managed to avoid the tragedy, after he realised something was not right with the vessel.
He told a TV channel over the phone that when the boat in question was coming back for its last trip, he saw it was tilting to one side and at that moment he decided to cancel the four tickets he had brought.
"I pointed out the problem to the person operating the boat and he said there was nothing to worry about. He also said there was no need for buying tickets for the children. There were five children in our group. But I decided not to board the boat anyway," he said.
Local residents said the boat was packed beyond its capacity of 20 persons and that its operators did not heed warning of onlookers that the vessel was tilting to one side.
"It was a tragedy which was invited. It could have been avoided if the boat was not overcrowded or if it had not been operated beyond the permissible time. When the boat reached a bend in the river, it overturned as it was already tilting to one side," local residents said.
One of them said there was no government machinery or infrastructure, like lights and ropes, available in time for rescue operations and it was the local fishermen who came with these items for rescuing people from the water.
He also said many more who could have escaped to safety could not do as the boat was covered with glass on all sides and there were only two doors out of which people could come out.
This is what one of the survivors of the incident, Tanur-native Shefeeq, also said.
Shefeeq, who had gone on the boat ride with some friends, said as he was sitting atop the boat's roof when it tilted and he was thrown.
"Those who were inside the boat, however, could not escape as there were only two exit doors, all the windows were covered with glass and many of them being children, they could not hold their breath underwater for long," he said.
He and his friends tried to rescue as many people as possible and hauled them onto the boats which came to rescue the passengers.
"We gave CPR to many, most of them were children who had swallowed water and were lifeless. It was so tragic. We did all we could. I suffered an injury to my leg and was taken with the survivors to the hospital," he said.
While 22 people died in the tragedy, 8 others were rescued and are undergoing treatment at various hospitals, district officials said.
The boat, which was carrying more than 30 people, capsized near an estuary close to the Thoovaltheeram beach in the Tanur area around 7:30 pm on Sunday.