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Investigation raises questions over UI student's death in India

BY RISHABH R. JAIN | FEBRUARY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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Munsiyari is a quiet and cold town nestled at the base of some of the highest peaks of the Himalayas in northern India. During the month of December, the cracked narrow roads running through the center of town are sparsely populated, and local businesses tend not to open until late afternoon. But this normally sleepy town of over 12,000 was wide-awake just a few months earlier in the aftermath of the tragic death of University of Iowa student Tom Plotkin.

The UI sophomore was enrolled in the Semester in India course with the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Wyoming. This program provides American students with an outdoor cultural experience in and around some of the highest villages in India. While the average students' trips teach them hiking, mountaineering, and leadership skills, Plotkin's adventure came to a tragically abrupt end on Sept. 22, 2011. On that day, the young explorer reportedly lost his footing and fell more than 250 feet into the Goriganga River.

Search efforts continued for the next 20 days with more than seven local governmental departments involved, but Plotkin's body has never been discovered. A fall from the rocky trail on which he hiked, down the steep — nearly 90-degree slope — into the very cold rapid waters of the Goriganga River, left very little chance for survival. But Indian governmental officials and locals interviewed on site by a Daily Iowan reporter have raised questions regarding the timeliness of search efforts, as well as the intelligence of trekking in the rain as evening approached.

THE FALL

Details of the fall come directly from an internal School investigation, as well as a subsequent Indian government report that was obtained by The Daily Iowan late last week.

Plotkin's journey in India began on Aug. 26, when he and 14 other students visited Ranikhet to complete a five-day wilderness advanced first-aid course.

The School, in India, is based in Ranikhet, a former summer retreat for British imperialists, and it is one of the biggest towns in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand.

The group departed for Munsiyari — a 150-mile car ride — on Sept. 4 and began the hiking section of their course. The members were broken up into three hiking groups and assigned leadership roles as a method of teaching the students to focus on navigation, self-governance, and risk management.

For the first 18 days, they hiked more than 37 miles through the Goriganga Valley, but on the 15th day of hiking, up to heights of 14,000 feet, Plotkin "developed signs and symptoms of altitude illness," according to the School report.

Plotkin's symptoms reportedly subsided, and on the 19th day of hiking — Sept. 22 — he was rotated into the position of group leader.

At 1 p.m. that day, the hikers reached Raragari, their planned campsite for the night. But Plotkin, the other group leaders, and hiking instructors reportedly decided to move on because of uncomfortable sleeping conditions.

"The campsite at Raragari was dirty and full of sheep. There was poop all around, and it smelled very bad," said Katie Sierks, a student in Plotkin's group, who is now back home in Minnesota.

"Everyone agreed that we should move on, because we had enough time."

Around 4 p.m., reports say all three groups had stopped at a chai tea shop for a quick respite in Rupsia Bagar.

But with nighttime approaching and a steady drizzle falling, they apparently forged through the mountains another two miles toward Lilam Village. This ultimately cost Plotkin his life.

Ravi Kumar, the program manager of the School in India, said the decision to hike in the rain was not abnormal because "they had hiked in the rain for about 12 days before this accident. And it was a planned trail."

Plotkin's was the last group to leave the chai shop. The three hiking instructors, and one instructor in training, remained behind in order to trail the groups to provide minimal involvement and promote student leadership, according to the School's report.

According to the School's report, Plotkin's group caught up with and overtook the second group led by another student. The 6-foot-wide path they hiked clung to the mountainside and was strewn with flat wet rocks. A sharp drop-off to the left of the hikers stretched down hundreds of feet to the rushing Goriganga River, reports show. Not 15 minutes after leaving the shop at 5 p.m., Plotkin was descending the path when his left foot reportedly slipped inward.

The School's report details Plotkin's fall and subsequent disappearance.

"His upper body was observed to twist to his right as he fell, and he landed in a seated position near the edge of the trail. His backpack pulled him over backwards, and because he had landed so close to the edge of the trail, there wasn't any level ground to fall onto, and he fell backwards and head-first off the trail.

"The students gathered near the edge and yelled his name, but there was no response."

THE SEARCH

According to the magisterial report — the official Indian government response to the incident — two students directly behind Plotkin saw him fall, and both described the path as being "slippery."

The School report states two students immediately hiked back to the chai shop to inform the instructors, who then hurried to the site. The same two students were then sent ahead to Lilam Village — less than a mile downhill from the spot of the accident — to retrieve ropes and webbing from another group that had reached the night's destination.

In a move that was later questioned by local officials, all the group members, including the ones who had reached Lilam Village, hiked back up the trail to Rupsia Bagar, where they camped for the next two nights. Local officials later derided the decision to hike the wet trail as night fell for any longer than necessary.

The instructors reportedly attempted to rappel down the slope and begin searching for any sign of Plotkin, an effort that the School claims embodies its ideal of "self-sustenance." But no immediate outreach was made to locals in and around the area.

"At [the School], the first level of defense we teach is self-sustenance. As long as we can deal with all of those issues in the wilderness, we should be able to do it with our own resources," said Kumar, the School official. "Only when our resources get exhausted, and we need additional help, is when we start looking for additional help."

But despite the reliance on self-sufficiency, Kumar admitted the instructors lacked the right equipment because the trek was a long-term backpacking excursion — the instructors were not carrying ropes that could reach the river.

Instead of contacting officials in Lilam Village or Munsiyari — each no more than 7 miles from the site of the fall — School instructors decided to contact their headquarters in Ranikhet, more than 150 miles away.

They also emailed the U.S. Embassy in India at around 10 p.m. later that day to request a helicopter, said Bruce Palmer, a spokesman for the School. The helicopters began searching by noon the next day.

Equipment from Ranikhet — on vehicles that because of the road conditions, could only drive an average of 15 mph — reached Lilam Village at around 8 a.m. the next day, Sept. 23.

Local officials were flabbergasted at not being contacted directly after the fall.

"We told [the School] they should have informed us in the evening, and we would have contacted the Indo-Tibetan Border Police post," said Jaswant Rathore, the head of the police for Munsiyari, speaking in Hindi. "If they informed us on time, rescue efforts could have begun by 6 p.m. on the same day."

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police supply post is located less than a mile from where Plotkin fell.

Speaking in Hindi, "We handle all kinds of rescue efforts in this area ranging from natural disasters, buses falling over, or people falling over," said Pragdott Joshi, a subinspector of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. "All our soldiers are deployed as soon as we are notified and provide any kind of assistance needed."

But the School continued its own rescue efforts upon the arrival of the equipment.

Rathore said he got a whiff of the happenings and began organizing seven different local search teams by 5 a.m. Sept. 23.

"[The School] rescue team was working independently. It was hesitant to give us any information," Rathore said, remembering that by the end of Sept. 23, his agency had more than 50 people from local departments helping in the search while even more posts in villages located downstream were ordered to scan the river.

But School program manager Kumar said there were reasons for wanting independence.

"[The locals], their training was so rudimentary," he said. "They had no competencies or the equipment that is required to go down the mountain. They were doing some random stuff."

However, Rathore said, the Munsiyari police headquarters had ample search and rescue equipment, and a local search team from Munsiyari, accompanied by a School staff member, rappelled and recovered Plotkin's backpack. Along with his jacket and headlamp recovered by a School team, those are the only three items found from the accident.

LOCAL RESPONSE

Locals in the area were shocked and saddened that an accident of this nature had occurred.

Harimal Singh, a 76-year-old chai-shop owner who has lived his entire life in Lilam Village, said this was only the second such incident with a foreigner on that route.

Sitting stiffly, his arms folded against his chest, Singh recollected watching helicopters zip past his shop.

"They would fly by that close," he said in broken Hindi, pointing to the valley, just meters away from his shop, which also marks the entry point for Lilam Village.

Though relieved that noisy search efforts had now ceased, he was astounded that the School didn't tell anyone in Lilam Village about the accident.

"They came back down this way and didn't even tell us what had happened before proceeding downhill," Singh said. "The next day, they came back up this way, and we were surprised to see them again. So we asked them why they had come back, and that is when they told us that one of their students had fallen into the river."

Puranchandra Pandey, 43, is a local news correspondent who owns and operates Hotel Pandey Lodge — a chic glass structure that looks almost out of place in the rural town of Munsiyari.

Commonly known as Pandey Jee, Pandey has his hands in all of Munsiyari's happenings and helped the Daily Iowan reporter set up interviews with local authorities.

"You are here about the American boy who fell, aren't you?" said Pandey before pulling up a chair in his restaurant to join the reporter for a conversation over a lunch of rice, daal, and spiced potatoes.

"It basically gives us and Munsiyari a bad name," said Pandey, who says he housed more than 200 foreigners at his hotel in 2011.

Pandey had been following the case since the very beginning, and said the School was rather unresponsive to local journalists.

"They came across as very shrewd diplomats to me," Pandey said. "When I and other local journalists tried to get some answers from them, they would just give us numbers of [the School] in the United States. And frankly speaking, when I called that number, the response I got was they didn't have time to discuss this issue."

Even local government officials said they had difficulty obtaining pertinent information from the School and its directors.

Rathore, the head of police for Munsiyari, said he was annoyed by what he perceived as the School's aloofness, and when the group's representatives finally spoke with him, they provided little information.

"Representatives from [the School] finally reported this incident on the afternoon of Sept 24," he said. "They filed a first incident report stating merely that Thomas Plotkin disappeared somewhere between Malchu and Lilam Village."

However, Bruce Palmer, Director of Admissions and Marketing for the National Outdoor Leadership School in the United States, said the organization had decided to make immediate contact with the U.S. Embassy in India and had worked through that channel in order to get a helicopter to the scene as soon as possible, as opposed to speaking directly with local officials.

"What we were doing was putting all hands on deck, moving equipment from a ways away, getting it there and getting people staged," he said. "We also had 14 other students that we were dealing with. We were immediately in touch with Plotkin's family and helping them with their needs. I think we were trying to cover as many bases as imminently possible during the circumstances."

TRAINING AND TRAILS

Munsiyari attracts more than 4,000 foreign tourists every year, and most of them visit the region to hike the jagged trails carved into the Himalayas that used to serve as trade routes between India and Tibet.

But while thousands of foreigners flock to these mountains every year, at 7,200 feet above sea level, Mother Nature can be unpredictable and often perilous.

Elizabeth Brenner, Plotkin's mother, says one student in Plotkin's group spoke to her at length regarding the conditions they faced on the night of Plotkin's fall.

"They did not anticipate what it would mean to hike this trail for longer than anticipated, into near darkness, in the rain, with the trail strewn with so many wet rocks," Brenner said, remembering the student told her that as a group, they had decided to keep hiking from the originally planned campsite in Raragari to Lilam Village. "She said that other students were slipping and falling, including herself, and that they were tired and afraid."

But not all hikers felt the conditions were so intimidating.

"The trails themselves aren't the best," said Sierks, a student in Plotkin's group. "They were somewhat slippery during descent because it was drizzling. The spot where Tom fell from wasn't slippery at all. Ten or 15 minutes behind that it was slippery, but if you were careful, it wasn't ridiculously slippery."

The monsoon season — which lasts from mid-August to mid-September and fell during the School's backpacking course — does lead to many disasters in the state. In 2010's monsoon season, more than 20,000 homes were destroyed in the region from landsides, flash floods, and other natural disasters. And according to locals, even villagers who are well-versed with these paths sometimes lose their footing and fall.

The School's students are reportedly required to sign an agreement acknowledging the potential dangers of the trip, such as "rivers that may be swollen" and "slopes where rocks can fall," Palmer said. Yet he admits, "you can't possibly list out all the things that could happen."

Though the School doesn't have any pre-training program for these students, they are required "to be fit" before taking on a School course.

"What we suggest is that people sign up six to eight months in advance, and the School basically gives them enough input on staying physically fit," Kumar said. "The fitter the students come on a [School] course, the more they will be able to enjoy the adversities."

Palmer said students also learn essentials on the course from instructors who go through a very comprehensive training process, including a 30-day School instructor course in the United States.

"All our courses are open to any student who is fit, who is motivated, and who is willing to learn the skills that we are teaching," he said. "What we do is, we teach people how to do it, and then we go and do it. So you are learning by doing it, but you're getting instructions before doing it."

Sierks said even though she didn't have a formal fitness screening before starting the course, she was given instructions to be physically fit and a list of some exercises that would help her get in shape. Additionally, all participants fill out a lengthy health survey which is reviewed by doctors, School officials said.

The University of Iowa claims no responsibility for preparing any student who takes a spot on a program not affiliated with the university, said John Rogers, the assistant director of the UI International Programs.

"While students are participating in non-UI-affiliated study-abroad opportunities, the external organization is primarily responsible for their health and safety," he said.

The UI has no direct affiliation or financial relationship with the School, but four UI students have attended the organization's courses in the last two years, and Rogers said university officials are always willing to provide any support they can for the protection and safety of their students.

REMEMBERING PLOTKIN

At 6-3, broad-shouldered and known to be warm and affectionate, Plotkin studied international business at UI and also played lacrosse and hockey.

In a heartfelt eulogy delivered at a memorial service for him held in November at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Minneapolis, Daniel Plotkin, Plotkin's middle brother, described him as "larger than life."

"At a young age, Thomas was quiet but calculating," he said. "Always thinking. He excelled in nearly everything he took on. School was too easy, sports came to him naturally, Thomas never had to push. I saw him growing up. He was bored. His being thirsted for more and wanted to push boundaries constantly. He was larger than life."

Brenner initially refused to talk to the DI in September because she was too grief-stricken in the aftermath of her son's death. By January, she was ready.

"The first thing I said to [the School] was bring my son back," she said. "And then I started to figure out he is not going to come back alive. Then my reaction was bring my son's body back. And then there was the point where I just wanted to know the truth."

In describing her life with Plotkin, Brenner said her youngest son had moved from San Diego to Minnesota with her after her 26-year-old marriage ended. It was a difficult move for both of them.

"But Tom was the one who adapted first. He made the high-school hockey team, and he made friends," Brenner said. "He always smiled. He always hugged hello and goodbye. And I think, gradually, what he really got was how to see difficulties as challenges, how to use it as a means to self-discovery, how to reshape his life by reshaping himself. These are the lessons most of us don't learn, or don't learn until much later."

Academically, Brenner said, Plotkin was inclined toward studying a cross among economics, agriculture and policymaking — trying to decipher ways to use the land and allocate resources efficiently.

Plotkin was very enthusiastic about being in India and wrote back to Brenner how happy he was with his choice.

"When I took him to the airport, I hugged him and told him that you are going on an adventure," Brenner said. "Write in your journal every day and bring back all your stories."

Then, she paused.

"But I completely expected to go to the airport and pick him up in November."

THE FINAL REPORT

A confidential Indian government report — compiled by Jaswant Rathore, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Munsiyari — was obtained by The Daily Iowan in the original Hindi.

Translated by Daily Iowan reporter Rishabh Jain from Hindi to English, what follows below comes directly from the conclusion of the report.

"On 22/09/2011, when Thomas Plotkin reportedly fell into the Gori river at around 5:20 p.m., NOLS group leaders and other members should have immediately taken assistance from villagers and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) situated at a distance of only one and a half kilometers from the site of the fall. However, this was not done. One never knows whether it could have been possible to find Thomas Plotkin with the assistance of villagers and ITBP on that very day. It is therefore, regrettable that the sub-divisional administration was informed late. The path to Milam Glacier comprises a tough terrain and is very bad in some instances. Keeping these adverse geographical conditions in mind, the possibility of an accident can never be denied, and hence it does not seem proper to have trekked that path during the evening and under a light drizzle."


Editor's Note (posted 02/23/12):

Because of a source's errors, a previous version of this article "Fatal fall raises questions" inaccurately reported that students on National Outdoor Leadership School trips do not undergo a health screening. In fact, all students submit a health survey that is reviewed by a medical team. Additionally, the article failed to mention that the School officials say they contacted the Munsiyari Disaster Management Office the night of the student's fall, which was not reported in the Indian government report or mentioned by local officials. The DI regrets the errors.

A previous version of the story stated there were two instructors hiking on the course, there were in fact three instructors, and one instructor in training. The previous version also stated Plotkin's backpack was recovered by a Munsiyari search team. The local search team was accompanied by a School staff member at the time the backpack was recovered.


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