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Eye in the sky

Saturday, May 5th, 2012
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Russian pilot of sight-seeing flight radioed Pokhara about the Seti flood and possibly saved many lives

Capt Alexander Maximov

Capt Alexander Maximov on an earlier Annapurna sightseeing flight two years ago.

Captain Alexander Maximov used to fly MiG fighters in Russsia before coming to Nepal to work for Avia Club in Pokhara.

On Saturday morning he had taken a tourist up the Seti Valley in his blue single-engined Ukrainian-made Aeroprakt to see the Annapurnas up close. It wasn’t a perfect day and there were lingering clouds from last night’s thunderstorm. He got back to Pokhara, and took off again immediately with another passenger before the winds picked up over the mountains.

He had reached his cruising altitude of 10,000ft above the Seti 17 miles north of airport with Machapuchre and Annapurna 4 towering over him. Looking down, he noticed something odd. The Seti wasn’t its usual thin white thread at the bottom of the valley, but looked like an angry brown rope. The leading edge of the wave was a dark wall of water about 10 metres high.

The Seti River shortly after the avalanche dam was breached.

The Seti River shortly after the avalanche dam was breached, Maximov radioed Pokhara airport to warn of the flood and raced the water back to the city. This picture was taken from a remote camera on the wingtip of the plane.

Because of his military training, Maximov knew exactly what he was seeing and thought he better alert people downstream. He immediately radioed Pokhara tower and told the air traffic controller that “a big water” was coming down the Seti. The control tower informed the security agencies, and it was possibly because of this half-hour early warning that a lot of lives were saved.

“I could see multiple avalanches of ice and rock blocking the Seti just below the point where the Bhujung Khola joins it,” Maximov told me over the phone from Pokhara on Saturday evening, “I turned the plane around to head back to the airport, but the water was traveling faster than the plane.”

He managed to catch up with the flood near Tatopani, where Russsian tourists were being swept away as this picture was taken.

He managed to catch up with the flood near Tatopani, where Russsian tourists were being swept away as this picture was taken.

Still, Maximov managed to catch up and took these dramatic pictures of the Seti flood arriving on the northern edge of Pokhara before disappearing underneath the city. The flood was preceded by a red mass of floating logs as the water raced down river.

Maximov has been flying in Pokhara now for more than a decade, but says he has never seen anything like what he saw today. He was also saddened by the loss of life, especially when he heard that four Russian tourists were swept away by the flood at Tatopani and are still missing.

In his own understated and modest way, Maximov brushed aside praise for the quick thinking that may have saved so many lives. “I was just doing my job and what anyone else in my place would have done,” he said.

The leading edge of the flood was filled with floating logs as the water swirled towards Pokhara.

The leading edge of the flood was filled with floating logs as the water swirled towards Pokhara.

The flood as it raced past the Pokhara-Baglung Highway near Hyangja.

The flood as it raced past the Pokhara-Baglung Highway near Hyangja.

PICS: ALEXANDER MAXIMOV

Watch video: Flooding in Pokhara

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