Does the bright light at the end of the tunnel really exist? Do shock and panic tingle every nerve in your body, or does numbness take over when confronted with a singular life-threatening episode? Near-death experiences can leave a lasting mental legacy that you may never come to terms with. Bingedaily spoke to a 26/11 terrorist attack survivor, a mountaineer who survived a rockfall from 2000 feet, and a navy officer who survived a crash at sea and lived to tell the tale.
They tell us what it feels like to have death staring at you straight in the face. Near-death experiences ensure you’ll never really be the same again.
“I can never forget the face of Kasab before he shot me.”
Devika Rotawan was travelling to Pune from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on November 26, 2008. Before stopping to buy the tickets, she slipped off to the washroom while her father waited on the platform. A gunshot echoed loud, causing Devika to run out to investigate the source of the noise. The scene she was confronted with was perhaps worse than any nightmare her young 10-year-old self had ever fathomed - bullets being fired left, right and centre. “I was numb. Here was a man with an AK47 firing blindly, not in the least bothered who was killed or for that matter, how many.”
At that moment Devika, the youngest survivor of the attacks, did not comprehend the severity of the situation. Unaware that she was within range of the most notorious terrorist of the attacks, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, she says “In cartoons, the monster holds the gun and fires blindly. This was exactly what was happening, with the only difference being that here, bodies were collapsing. Near-death experiences in real life aren’t like those in the movies. Here, it’s life or death.”
“I looked into his eyes, the only part of his face that wasn’t covered. We locked eyes for a second, and in that brief moment, I knew those eyes would haunt me for years to come. The next thing I knew, he had fired a bullet that hit me straight in the leg.”
Mangled bodies lay piled - the remnants of the night that destroyed the city, as Devika woke up in a hospital bed the next day. “I was angry. Hate pulsed through me, as I recalled flashbacks of the previous night - people screaming, children dying, and the eyes of the terrorist that reflected evil.” A month and a half in the hospital and six operations later, Devika was called to testify in court against the accused Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab. “I immediately identified Kasab in Court. There was no mistaking that pair of eyes that spelt venom. The man was right there and I wanted to kill. Such was the hatred.”
It has been 12 years since the dreaded terrorist attacks. The city has recovered from the trauma, but this young girl hasn’t. “Fireworks at Diwali still frighten me. I cannot get the face of evil out of my mind, and I don’t wish to. It serves as a reminder that one day I will be an IPS Officer and abolish terrorism for good.”
The 2008 Mumbai attacks were a series of terrorist attacks that took place in November 2008, when 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist Islamist terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, carried out 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai.
“The boulders were falling towards us as we were suspended on the mountainside. We waited for death to hit.”
Sharath Raj, the co-founder of EDAS, a company that organises expeditions and treks, was part of a wall project along with his friend Ashish. A thrilling expedition that entailed climbing the epic 2000 feet concave cliff Konkankada, it was a dream project of the duo legendary climbers, Ganesh Geed and Rohit Vartak. Sharath and Ashish joined in the 10-day expedition as support climbers.
Explaining the trajectory of the mountainside, Sharath says “As the climb progresses, the base camp is shifted and elevated to advance base camp, which is a small ledge 800 feet above the base camp. The transition of these camps involves tedious carrying of load including gears, ropes, ration and water meant for the whole expedition. One trip of load ferry necessitates that a climber rappels down 800 feet all the way till the base, drops the load and climbs back to the advance base camp through an ascending technique known as jumaring.”
Unknown to the duo, the next day would have Sharath and Ashish witnessing one of their worst near-death experiences. “We were preparing to make our way to the advance base camp by jumaring. There were two fixed ropes installed on this 350 feet wall, one the full length of the wall and the other one 70 feet short.” As the rockfall jeopardises the safety of anyone standing below, the two decided to attempt the climb together.
“It was decided that Ashish will climb to the height of 70 ft on the full rope and later shift himself to the shorter rope which was accessible from that height. Once he shifted to the second rope, I would start my climb on the first rope. This strategy would not only prove safer but also save time. No one in their wildest dreams would attempt to ascend Konkankada once the sun goes down.”
After a while of jumaring, the duo were on the overhang section of the climb where they could see neither the rope nor the wall ahead of them. “Knowing that our ropes were resting their load on the rock debris above, we wanted to get done with this risky affair as soon as possible.” One careless move and the boulders would begin to pelt down at bullet speed. Mustering every ounce of courage, they kept climbing up and on. And then they heard it. The rumbling.
“The noise suggested that a huge boulder had just hit the ledge above us and was heading towards the overhang, which was still not in sight. We quickly tried to get hold of the wall and cling as close to it as possible.”
As they heard their destiny rolling towards them, there was something more than fear building up. The boulders rolling from the height above would crush them at any moment, and there was death waiting at the valley below. “After 3 to 4 seconds, which to us felt like an eternity, the rumbling ceased, and the boulders fell through the void between us. We were suspended on the mountainside and the rock passed inches away from us, crashing at the exact point we had stood at before we began our ascend. The noise was heard all the way to the base village.”
Having lived through one of the most horrific near-death experiences, this mountaineer says following the fall of the boulder with its resounding crash, there were seconds of silence. “We could hear the sound of our breath and our hearts, threatening to burst with the pace they were beating at. It was at that moment, that we felt lucky to see another sunset. We felt alive.”
“I looked around me and saw the wreckage. We had crashed.”
Ashutosh Mohile served the Indian Coast Guard for 26 years, before switching over to civil aviation. “I loved adventure and at a very young age realised that one can live life to the fullest only when they face death time and again.” No stranger to near-death experiences, Ashutosh has spent a night in a forest with a black panther within an arms range, been on a ship that was on fire, had aircraft engine failures, fallen from a cliff and also suffered a severe electric shock. But there’s one experience that stands out, the incident of 1993.
In Coast Guard Air Station Chennai, a team ran around preparing to depart to Kolkata. They needed to refuel at Vizag, a naval airbase first, and the crew was in a hurry to depart so as to reach Vizag before its closure.
“It was my first flight as a co-pilot. The aircraft was ready. We started engines and were about to taxi out when we heard a big bang.” However, when the crew checked the engine parameters, everything seemed alright.
“The journey took its course,” says Ashutosh, as he recounts the freak incident, “But somewhere along the way, I felt I was moving like a bubble, vertically upward from the depth of the ocean. The next thought that crossed my mind was that we had a crash.” A realist, Ashutosh told himself he must be dreaming and forced his eyes open to horror. What he saw sent his mind spinning. “I was in water surrounded by pieces of wreckage. The wings were floating upside down. The engines or the fuselage was nowhere to be seen. The tail section was floating separately. It wasn’t a dream. This was real. WE HAD CRASHED.”
In those moments, with the dawn of death drawing nearer, this ex-Coast Guard Officer cursed himself for not buying any additional insurance, wondered how his wife would bring up their child, only to realise there was nothing he could do about these thoughts clouding his mind. “We were miles away from the coast. I was in the water and I didn’t have a life jacket!”
Having learnt from his previous near-death experiences, the adventurer in him knew he must persist and asked the inevitable question -what next! Hope answered his mental plea for help in the form of a life raft! With his jaw in three pieces, the chin hanging below like a pendant around the neck and a suspected broken backbone, Ashutosh was in for a rude shock when he discovered the raft was empty.
“I was the only occupant. I felt the panic hit me like never before. Unknown to me, the raft was filling up with my blood.”
The ordeal wasn’t over. “When I woke hours later, I found myself in a fishing boat, shivering as a result of the hypothermia.” The next evening a helicopter evacuated him and another survivor of the crash from the island and took them to a naval ship. The bodies of his colleagues were found after a massive search operation.
Ashutosh says the adventurer in him never did die. The Coast Guard authorities asked if he would like to opt-out of aviation. “I was firm on continuing to fly. My wife stood by me. Death is an efficient teacher. My miraculous survival got me thinking of the higher purpose in life. Why else would a person crashing into the ocean from a thousand feet at a speed of almost 300 Km/hr survive without a life jacket?”