Local saviors of 'Kerala Model' win global accolades


Over 150 were rescued from wreckage of the crashed AI plane in Kozhikode

By Hassan Cheruppa

Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH — Kerala, a tiny state in the southwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, has once again proved its mettle of matchless spirit of humaneness, compassion and togetherness with saving scores of lives in the wake of the worst plane crash in India in a decade last Friday.

Accolades poured in from all parts of India and abroad, especially from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, for the “Kerala Model” bravery and undying spirit of solidarity and empathy of the locals residing in the vicinity of Kozhikode International Airport who came from COVID-19 containment zones, braving incessant heavy rain and brushing aside pandemic fear to save more than 150 passengers from the wreckage of an Air India Express flight that overshot the runway and split into two.

Aug. 7 was a tragic Friday for Kerala where 71 people were buried in a massive landslide in the early morning, of which only 52 bodies have so far been retrieved in a tea plantation estate in Munnar, a world famous hill tourist destination, during the torrential rains lashing the state since several days.

There were 184 passengers, including 10 infants, and two pilots and five cabin crew on board the flight that was flying from Dubai to Kozhikode under the Indian government’s Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate people stranded by the pandemic. Eighteen people, including the pilots, died and more than 150 injured in the accident in which the plane rammed into the airport wall, broke down the fuselage and badly mangled the front half after plunging off the tabletop runway into the bushed area 35 feet below.

Since operational in 1988, around two million Gulf expatriates from the northern Malabar region of Kerala use Kozhikode airport, which is among the busiest airports in India in terms of passenger traffic and is often touted as the gateway to Malabar.

Amid screams of pain and blood-soaked clothes, the local residents pitched in to assist in the rescue work and helped shift the injured to various hospitals. Within minutes after the tragedy, the locals were the first to rush to the crash site and ferried the injured passengers to hospitals in whatever vehicles they got, including their own cars, mini pickups and taxis before arrival of ambulances at the scene. Though they came empty handed, they took up, without losing a single moment, the rescue mission in a very orderly and systematic way and risked even their lives from a possible fire and explosion of the fuel tank of the aircraft.

They were later joined by more firefighters, security personnel and health workers. Hundreds of locals arrived at the scene with their vehicles after receiving WhatsApp messages in a very short span of time. As a result, the rescue operation was completed within a record time of 100 minutes. These people have also proved they are the best custodians of the valuables of the passengers with keeping all their personal belongings and baggage that were strewn around without losing a single one.

Their selfless services and commitment to the cause ensured that the relief and rescue operations proceeded without a hitch. They even used a mini pickup lorry, which was passing through the site immediately after the crash, to ferry the first passenger to a hospital. Hundreds of young men came forward to donate blood and there were serpentine queues of people for blood donation in the wee hours of Saturday in front of over a dozen hospitals where the injured passengers were admitted in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts. After completion of the rescue operation, all these local people, mostly ordinary workers, are now in a two-week self-quarantine as part of the COVID-19 protocols. “The state government will conduct COVID-19 tests on all of them,” said K.K. Shailaja, health minister of Kerala.

The management of the ill-fated IX 1344 aircraft of the national carrier came forward on Sunday with a big salute to the locals for their heroic role in the rescue operation. In a hashtag #Express Gratitude, Air India Express tweeted: “Taking a bow to HUMANITY – A standing salute to people of Malappuram, Kerala who had such kindness and presence of mind to respond to the situation.” The national carrier said in a statement: “It takes not just courage but a touch of humanity to save a life. We at Air India Express take a bow to the people of Malappuram who have risked their own lives to save many. We owe you.”

In a hashtag #Kerala Model, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, former Indian minister and under-secretary general of the United Nations, said: “What sets Malayalis apart is our spirit and unity during floods, the pandemic and now the aircrash. When a mishap occurs, people throw themselves into the situation regardless of religion/caste/class. That’s my #KeralaModel.”

India’s Federal Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri and Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, several parliamentarians and leaders of political parties were among those who visited the crash site and hailed the extraordinary courage and selfless dedication of the local people. “I salute the spirit of solidarity and brotherhood shown by the people of Kozhikode who took great personal risks in providing immediate relief and help to the victims. This has helped in averting a greater tragedy and what also speaks volumes for the undaunted spirit of the aviation professionals and people of Kerala,” Puri tweeted. He visited the accident site on Saturday to assess the situation on the ground.

The chief minister appreciated the instant response of the general public and the local authorities to the tragedy, which he said ensured minimum loss of lives in a disaster of such large magnitude. “Even though 18 precious lives were lost due to the impact of the crash, the rescue operations were a miraculous work. The general public and the officials played a big role in spearheading the rescue operations,” Vijayan said. “It was a miracle we limited the damage. The local people were the first to reach the spot and they turned real heroes. They entered the aircraft risking their lives to save others. We have one aim, save maximum lives, and they played a stellar role,” Malappuram district collector K. Gopalakrishnan said, adding that the locals of Kondotty along with police, rescued almost everyone from the crash site.

Leaders of various political parties, including E.T. Mohammad Basheer, member of Parliament from Malappuram district and national organizing secretary of Indian Union Muslim League, and T.V. Ebrahim, member of the Kerala Legislative Assembly from Kondotty, who were present giving directions to the locals until the end of the rescue operation, also hailed their undying spirit of dedication and unique humanitarian gesture.

Shahul Hameed, one of the locals, said: “I was involved in saving 37 people, including children. I am still in the shock for not saving an 18-month-old kid who sustained serious head injuries though I rushed him to the hospital,” he said noting that it was a distressing sight that small kids were trapped under the seats. “We didn’t mind heavy rain or the COVID threat. Our only thought was saving the lives of those trapped under the debris,” said Fazal Puthiyakath, another rescuer.

After the injured were shifted to the hospitals, the locals also tackled a challenge of the shortage of blood in hospitals. Nawalul Rahman, who coordinated the blood donation campaign, said: “We spread the message through social media groups. Following this, around 3,000 people contacted me through calls and messages, indicating their willingness to donate blood and soon after they rushed to line up in front of hospitals.”

Various Indian media outlets, including print, television and social media, published scores of reports and videos congratulating the undying spirit of humanity shown by the people of Kondotty in handling the most distressing situations. Speaking to Saudi Gazette, Arimbra Aboobacker, general secretary of the Jeddah Central Committee of Kerala Muslim Cultural Center (KMCC), who hails from Kondotty, said that there is nothing unusual in this as this is in the DNA of the people of Kerala, especially Kondotty and other parts of Malappuram and Malabar region. “This spirit of empathy and togetherness is the driving force of KMCC, the largest expatriate organization in the Gulf, and other Keralite organizations to offer selfless and altruist services to succor the most distressing people as well as in serving the Hajj pilgrims. More than 100,000 poor workers have been benefited from the food kits and medicine distributed by KMCC in the Kingdom alone in the pandemic period,” he said adding that the organization was also instrumental in repatriating around 25,000 stranded people from the Kingdom to India in recent weeks.

Kabeer Kondotty, an official of Jeddah Kondotty Center, said that all expatriates in the Gulf, especially those from Kondotty, are ecstatic over the heroic acts shown by their brothren back home. “They have set a matchless example for the entire world through their selfless dedication,” he said.

Sunitha Devadas, a Keralite journalist, said the plane crash is the latest example of how the people of Kerala, especially Malappuram, are showing the world about forgetting political, regional and religious differences to join hands in a crisis. “The values of compassion, mercy and humaneness are the guiding spirit that prompted the locals to rush from their pandemic containment zone, save their fellow beings and go back for self-quarantine. This is also a befitting reply to those behind the smear campaign against Malappuram, the lone Muslim-majority district of Kerala,” she said while drawing attention to former Indian minister Maneka Gandhi’s recent labeling of Malappuram as the most violent district in India after a trap set with explosives killed a pregnant elephant, despite the fact that the incident had happened in a neighboring district of Palakkad.

Tara Tojo Alex, who has more than 107,000 followers on social media, said: “When a vicious attempt to tarnish Kerala and Malappuram has been vigorously going on, the crash showed the world the unconditional love of the locals toward their fellow beings irrespective of any religious and other considerations.”