On 30 September 1993, at about 4 am, an earthquake of 6 plus magnitude on the Richter scale destroyed the villages in the districts of Latur and Osmanabad to the ground. It claimed thousands of lives and left thousands injured and homeless. At that time, the then-Lieutenant Sumeet Baxi had been commissioned into the Indian Army, only eight or nine months back. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in 8th Battalion The Bihar Regiment which took part in the Relief and Rescue operations. Army columns were moved to Village Killari, Latur for providing aid in the rescue and relief work. His troops travelled for almost two days until they reached the location.
It was a gut-wrenching site, as not one structure was standing. Those alive were in despair, weeping, running around to seek help and retrieve belongings, cremate the dead – relatives, livestock, unsure of whether they would find their loved ones alive under the debris. Jackals, vultures, maggots, flies, etc were all around and the deathly stench of human and animal carcasses filled the air.
Lt Baxi’s battalion divided into respective rescue teams and started the relief work for three days almost which included extricating the bodies of animals and humans, separately and then cremating and burying them as the locals told them about their religious practices. And without gloves and masks, they picked them up with their bare hands until the district authorities made arrangements. It made the rescuers highly prone to infections, but the work just could not stop. Most of the soldiers were bitten by maggots, and the stink of the decaying bodies was stuck to their nails. Its stench was so strong, they couldn’t eat for days.
But on October 6, 1993, when the troop had just sat down to have lunch, a village couple came to them with folded hands and tears in their eyes. “Sir, please help us find our daughter’s body. We just want to complete her final rites,” the husband said, holding his wife who was weeping uncontrollably. Five teams had earlier visited the site but couldn’t find the body. The couple’s home was at the base of a small hillock and was buried under the debris of seven more homes and a temple that had come on top of their home, crushing it completely. While the couple had managed to jump out in time, there was no sign of their 18-month-old, Pinni. Even though Lt Baxi’s colleagues insisted that they finish their lunch, but he decided to go on with his gut feeling. The conviction in the parents’ eyes said something to him which he can’t describe even today. Mr Jawalge, the father, described the location of his destroyed house and general alignment of an iron cot where he, his wife and his daughter were sleeping on that fateful night.
“The child is alive!”
The troop’s first instinct was to find the iron cot the couple was sleeping on. Underneath the rubble, only a small portion of one of the railings of the cot was visible. They pushed the debris aside and tried to dig a small hole. They couldn’t move much with the heavy boulders and debris around them. While the iron cot lost one of its four legs due to the impact of the earthquake, it still stood thanks to an upturned brass pitcher which supported the cot right where the leg had fallen off, securing it in place. It was dangerous to say the least, as the debris from the destroyed houses above on the mound had started falling the moment anyone tried to dig-in.
Finally, the troops managed to dig a small opening through which only a head could fit. They tried to slide inside, but there wasn’t enough space. Lt Col Baxi was about 20 at the time with the slim and lean body, so he volunteered. He kept pushing until he could slither my full body inside. He then started reaching out in the dark, trying to get a feel of the things around, when his hand touched a cold body. When he tried to pull it, a weak cough escaped the body. Initially, he was horrified as nobody including the parents expected the child to have survived after 108 hours! Turns out underneath the debris of seven houses that fell on the home, was an iron cot under which Pinni (now called Priyanka) had rolled underneath it and survived a 108-hour tryst with destiny. She had defeated death and she was still breathing slowly. Lt Col Baxi pulled her close to his chest to transfer some body-warmth and yelled, “Baccha zinda hai! Baccha zinda hai! Company commander sahib se aur troops bhejne ke liye bolo (The child is alive, the child is alive. Call the company commander and ask him to send troops).”
An incredible tryst with destiny
This news that the child was alive spread like wildfire. Even before the company commander could reach the spot, a crowd of 700 villagers had gathered, standing on top of the rubble that the Lt Col and baby were both trapped under. As expected, there was a landslide, and unfortunately, they got buried again, this time along with two more jawans. The battalion and the local police rushed to the spot to control the crowd and rescue the rescuer. After what seemed like an hour-long ordeal they managed to pull the other two jawans out. When they tried to pull Lt Col Baxi, he told them they would have to dig further to make enough space for both Pinni and him. “A miracle had helped her survive for five days; I couldn’t let her die now. And they pulled us out safely,” he told The Logical Indian.
The first thing he did after being pulled out was to hand over the baby girl to the weeping parents. When he handed her over to the mother, they broke down. They just kept thanking him and touching his feet. Emotions overtook them. “Watching them cry, we all shared the feeling of happiness and grief at the same time. None of us could say anything for a few moments, which felt as if the time had stopped. The villagers were overjoyed and started chanting slogans for our battalion. Some of them even carried me through the village and were praising the effort. The whole atmosphere had changed from sorrow to joy, it was indeed an incredible tryst with destiny,” he says.
The moment we came out, there were a lot of foreign-national couples who wanted to adopt Pinni. Even Lt Col Baxi wanted to. She was named the Miracle Baby and it was here at that time, he called her ‘Priya’.
“Couldn’t speak for 30 minutes, we just weeped”
As Lt Col Baxi moved on and got posted to different locations, Priya’s family could stay in touch with him for four years only, wherein they regularly sent him letters and photographs of her. 25 years on, the memories continued to move on with his personal belongings wherever he went, safely tucked and treasured. He knew her family was busy getting rehabilitated and his life moved on too. He got married and had a family, and they kept moving every two years due to his postings. He kept wondering where ‘Pinni’ was and how she was doing.
Destiny brought him to Pune in 2016, where his wife Neera asked him, “Why don’t you try to find the little girl you had rescued?” The thought nudged at the back of his head, but work took over. “The missing puzzle pieces fell in place after a chance conversation I had with my colleague – a clerk, Havildar Dayanand Jadhav in my office. He told me that he was building a house in Latur, so I asked him where he was from? When he said Mangrul, my eyes lit up and asked him if he knew about a girl that was rescued alive after the earthquake called by the name, Priya or Pinni Jawalge? He said, ‘Sir, everyone knows her! How do you know her, Sir?” he said. When Lt Col Baxi told him that he was the man who rescued her, he was shell-shocked.
“When he gathered himself back, he told me, ‘sir if you had asked me a few months back, you would have been to attend her wedding!'”. He asked him to get the contact details of Priya. Havildar Jadhav immediately got in touch with her over the phone and told her, “Priya, the man you have been searching for, for decades is my boss, and he wants to speak to you.”
Over the phone, Lt Col Baxi and Priya couldn’t speak for quite a while and the moment was emotional for them. “I was speaking to a fully grown person who had been rescued 25 years back as a tiny-tot. I just couldn’t say anything but I do recollect that I told her I would come and look her up soon. She said that she will be waiting for me,” he recalls.
When they finally met, they couldn’t speak for about half an hour. “We just wept, Priya’s mother, Priya and me. It was my wife who broke the ice and got us to share about each others’ family. Priya told us that her father had passed a few months ago. But she told us how she had become a teacher at a school her uncle ran. She had kept my photograph from 25 years ago, next to the mandir (altar) she prayed at. From an 18-month-old child under the rubble to a fully grown lady, she is still a living miracle for me,” he said.
“The disaster from 25 years ago connected the two in a bond that will last till I breathe my last. “She calls me her father and she indeed is and will always be my first child.”
Priya wants to work for her village, give back as much all that the God has given her and Lt Col Baxi is very proud of the woman that she has become. She’s happily married and her husband works almost 400 km away as she chooses to stay in the same village and continue her good work. “I often feel that she is sacrificing her domestic life in the service towards to her own people, it is indeed truly inspirational – ‘A Good Deed Indeed.’ May God Bless her and her good work always,” says Lt Col Baxi.