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Wave of Destruction, Wave of Salvation

Ham Radio Operator on a Chance Visit to a Remote Indian Island Becomes a Lifeline

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page D01

PORT BLAIR, India -- About one month ago, Bharathi Prasad and her team of six young ham radio operators landed in this remote island capital with a hobbyist's dream: Set up a station and establish a new world record for global ham radio contacts. In the world of ham slang, it was called a "Dxpedition."

"It is a big honor to come to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and operate. There is no ham activity here because it is considered a very sensitive area by the Indian government," said Prasad, a 46-year-old mother of two from New Delhi.

In fact, the last ham activity in these scattered islands in the Bay of Bengal, 900 miles east of the Indian mainland, occurred in 1987, when Prasad set up a station in Port Blair and made 15,500 calls. "I had always wanted to come back and break that record," she said.

This time, Prasad set up an antenna in her hotel and turned Room 501 into a radio station. She made more than 1,000 contacts every day and said she operated "almost all day and all night, with just three hours of sleep."

In the early hours of Dec. 26, while the other hotel guests were fast asleep, Prasad's room was crackling with the usual squawks and beeps. At 6:29 a.m., she felt the first tremors of an earthquake. The tables in her room started shaking violently. She jumped up and shouted, "Tremors!" into her microphone. Then the radio went dead. She ran out and alerted the hotel staff and other guests.

But with that one word, she had alerted the world of radio hams, too.

Within a few hours, the extent of the damage was clear to everyone in Port Blair. But the tsunami had knocked out the power supply and telephone service of the entire archipelago of 500 islands, leaving the capital virtually cut off from the rest of India.

Undaunted, Prasad set up a temporary station on the hotel lawn with the help of a generator -- and put the city back on the ham radio map.

"I contacted Indian hams in other states and told them about what had happened. The whole world of radio hams were looking for us, because they had not heard from us after the tremors," she said later. "But I also knew this was going to be a big disaster. I immediately abandoned my expedition and told all radio operators to stop disturbing me. I was only on emergency communication from then on."

While news of the death and devastation caused by the tsunami in other parts of India was quickly transmitted around the world, the fate of the Andamans and Nicobars was slow to unfold.

Prasad kept broadcasting information about the situation to anyone who could hear her radio. Over and over, she repeated that there was no power, no water, no phone lines.

On Monday morning, she marched into the district commissioner's office and offered her services. "What is a ham?" he asked her. After she explained, he let her set up a radio station in his office, and a second one on Car Nicobar, the island hit hardest.

For the next two days, as the government grappled with the collapsed communication infrastructure, Prasad's ham call sign, VU2RBI, was the only link for thousands of Indians who were worried about their friends and families in the islands. She also became the hub for relief communications among officials.

"Survivors in Car Nicobar were communicating with their relatives in Port Blair through us," she said. When the phone lines were restored on Tuesday, Prasad's team in Car Nicobar radioed information about survivors to her team in Port Blair, whose members then called anxious relatives on the mainland to tell them that their loved ones were alive and well.

Prasad also helped 15 foreign tourists, including several from the United States, send news to their families. Offers of relief aid poured in from around the world through her radio, and she directed them to government officials. She also arranged for volunteer doctors to be sent from other Indian states.

Now she has become so popular in the islands, and in the ham world, that she said she has been affectionately nicknamed the "Teresa of the Bay of Bengal."

When the earthquake occurred, Prasad's worried husband called her from New Delhi and asked her to return home immediately.

"He reminded me that I have two children to look after back home," she said, laughing. "I told him that as a ham radio operator, I have a duty in times of disaster."

Under India's strict communications laws, a ham cannot leave home with his or her radio without going through an elaborate bureaucratic process to obtain permission from various ministries.

Prasad said that after her first expedition to Port Blair, she spent 17 years begging and badgering officials before she was allowed to return.

Now she hopes her work in the aftermath of the tsunami will ease the path for other hams in India.

"She looked like a simple housewife when she checked in," recalled Ravi Singh, the hotel manager in Port Blair. "But now I marvel at the courage she has shown."

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