This was a drama in real life… remember Reader’s Digest? V.S. Ramana, a friend, who heads the PR and corporate communication function at L&T-ECC, has sent me an email describing how he and the PR team from Chennai (or was it India) recently escaped with their lives during a visit to Mauritius. I am reproducing here what he has written and except for editing for size, I have let it remain as it is. This came as a shocker when I read it. Here goes:
Nearly 50 PR professionals from India, from various leading public and private sector organisations of India, top media as well as from the advertising sector, arrived by Air Mauritius MK 745 on the 24th August. The event was to mark the celebrations of '50 Years of Public Relations Society of India (PRSI)' - the apex PR body that decided to extend its Golden Jubilee celebrations in the 'Out of the World' Island called Mauritius.
The event had a true auspicious beginning with a kick off by Hon'ble President of Mauritius, and event participation by Minister for Industry, Director Board of Investments, High Commissioner of Mauritius in India, Director, Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority,the acting Director, Govt Info Service, the CEO Air Mauritius - to name few of the stars; and many noted international PR experts. The three-day sessions of the 2nd International PR Festival ended with active participation of the delegates and speakers. It was time then time for members to enjoy the island's unique experience for the rest of the days before their scheduled departure on at day break on 31 August.
Fatema F Kaderbhay of Heldive Ltd [not Hell Dive!] came to offer an exciting 'underwater walk' – “it is so safe even for 7-year-old kids and those who do not even know swimming!” she said. It was also an unbeatable offer, said to be very special for us. A confident lot of 16 agreed to participate. At the defined moment, only 11 people set out for the venture - that could have turned into a 'disastrous adventure'.
A cab took the team, and Raj, the driver, spoke Hindi and actively engaged all the people on the finer aspects of the island. We soon reached Pereybere at the Grand Bay. The lagoon was quiet, serene and emerald blue.... truly inviting!! As we got to capture few shots on our video and still cameras, a ferry came ashore to take us to a 'platform' in the sea where we were supposed to get into the suits and begin the adventure.
Eleven of us boarded the ferry, and with the fat boat-man, Ricardo Jean Mitchel, we were a complete dozen! We did not know the prescribed maximum, but later gathered that it ought to have been just 8 – including the skipper. The surprise was that Fatema did not come along but said that she'd be available for anything if need be.
The boatman had initial trouble, with the motor not starting off in the first go. "Not a good omen?" sounded off one of the members.... and as if to ward off that 'negative effect', I shouted a prayer for all to say - "Jai Bajrang Bali!”. And we certainly needed the blessings of the Lord in the next 15 minutes... "We are now about 3 to 4 metres deep," said the boatman, not very communicative or even excited, just like many other men we had come across the boats in La Plantation where we all stayed.
Soon as we went about two-third the distance, the danger ahead was visible to all of us. “There is water coming in,” alerted Meena. Water started entering from the rear end of the boat, just above the place of the motor. The motor perhaps did not have the adequate power to push us all and it seemed to gasp with the 'over weight?' Meena held that she had pointed out to Ricardo of water coming in some ten minutes before, to which he is said to have retorted, “No problem!” Right now it was indeed A BIG PROBLEM! The boat man shut the engine off - asked us to stay calm and not panic, and whistled and waved to draw attention of near-by boats.
"Guys, do not panic, please stay calm," I yelled and Bharat too was trying to make others stay as calm as possible. Any panic and undue movements would surely topple the boat, even before the water filled up. We did hold ourselves together but not for too long. Water gushed in from the rear of the boat, faster than we had anticipated. The boat turtled to its left and threw us all into the lagoon. We all hit the water. Jayashree, Srinivas, Dr Anil and his wife Anita were swimmers of some sort and the rest who did not know swimming were truly in great dismay and distress.
As I held my breath to prevent seawater entering my mouth and nose, I kicked my hands and limbs to stay afloat above water. The capsized boat was right above me and I held on to it. The boat’s belly was very slippery and my hand was giving away but finally I managed to hold on to the rim of the boat, he right hand holding from the outer side, and the left hand from the inner. I started stretching my legs and kept flapping to stay afloat and took stock of the situation.
Jayashree emerged from the boat's front-end, having been right under the boat and weaved her way soon out. Bharat and Dr Anil emerged on my left. I saw Srinivas who pulled Bhargavi up even as she was being towed away by the waves. Subha and Rajagopalan too were visible but were on the other side of the boat. Meena took help from Srinivas and stayed afloat. The boatman too emerged and showed signs of utter dismay. Apart from his aiding Srinivas to help Bhargavi climb up and lie on to the top of the boat he did nothing to rescue or lend a helping hand.
We all missed Suganthy! "Suganthy...where is she?" I yelled and we all started drawing the attention of the missing member - we had to act fast! 'Something is holding my leg underneath" Dr Anil said. Karl, an Australian came to our rescue - he was God sent. Off to fishing with his nine-year son, he threw a life jacket. Bhargavi and Rajagopal were quickly taken into the Coast Guard boat that came very close to our sunken ferry and threatened to tilt it further, making us lose grip. Suganthy was still not visible!
Karl rescued Subha. "Take on the man in his dark glasses - he does not know swimming!" yelled Jayashree, referring to me. Karl swam towards me, and guided me till the ladder. As I got on, I insisted: "Please find Suganthi!" In seconds, Karl went under the boat and fetched Suganthy, who was floating flat on her belly. The others too held her and soon got her aboard Karl’s boat. "She is breathing" assured Karl. Suganthy was laid flat on the surface while her head hung below the body-level. She frothed from her mouth and nose. A good sign, I sort reassured myself first [I could have been right or wrong]. “Call for the emergency and ambulance”.... yelled someone.
Karl's boat soon headed to the shore... which by then had many anxious onlookers. A bedspread was soon laid... as Karl helped by others put Suganthy on to the floor. She was still breathing loud from her mouth. Karl gave her some quick first aid - one of the first aid emergency acts that he had learnt from a course completed just 10 days before.
She was rolled on to her left, with her left leg stretched and the right folded up. Suganthy threw up vomiting some of the undigested food. She was constantly assured by us that she was fine and that the rest of us too were. We held her hand firmly, giving her all the sensation, the heat, and sought to get her senses alive and ticking. “Open your eyes Suganthy”, and she would respond, “open wide”, she'd do that... “now roll your eyes”... and she quickly reacted to it.
In minutes she was under good care of the emergency ambulance and the medical team that came in. Dr Foundun and the team rushed her to the SSRN Hospital - North - in Pamplemouss. There was water in her lungs and the required medical interventions were given even while on the move. “She will have to be in the ICU tonight and she should be fine,”...assured the doctor. With timely help and best of medical intervention, Suganthy was out of the hospital the third day. But she was advised to undertake travel only after three days for ample precaution. Jayashree stayed back and with approval from my office, I stayed back as well for support.
While Karl and his family were invited to a thanksgiving meet by all the PR men, there is one ‘take home’ message at the end of the event. Life alone is the only valuable thing we all hold when it comes to a challenging situation. Be it in any place on this planet earth! Would be so true even in Mauritius, the 'Out of this World’ country! There is no value really to the belongings or money we lose - video and digital cameras or any such thing that we often state as 'valuables'.
The following day, the Minister Tourism met with us and Karl’s family and assured action would be taken on people who messed with lives and flouted safety norms. It was a good gesture on his part.