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National Outdoor Leadership School refutes Indian report on UI student's death

BY RISHABH R. JAIN | FEBRUARY 24, 2012 6:30 AM

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More than five months after a UI sophomore died while studying abroad in India, questions still surround the details of the subsequent search and rescue efforts.

Thomas Plotkin died after falling off a trail during a hiking trip near Munsiyari, India, in September. Plotkin was on a semester-long trip through the National Outdoor Leadership School. A Daily Iowan investigation earlier this month showed authorities in India were critical of the School's response to Plotkin's fall.

However, company officials are taking issue with that criticism. They say their response to the incident was appropriate.

School officials said Ravi Kumar, the School's India project manager, called Vikas Gupta, chief instructor at the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Department in Munsiyari, at 8 p.m. — just a few hours after Plotkin's fall.

"Whether that constitutes an official report or whether it doesn't, I don't know, but we did talk to him about it, and he was aware of it," School spokesman Bruce Palmer told The Daily Iowan this week.

Gupta, however, told the DI he didn't receive the call until later and wasn't given enough details.

"They called me at around 11 p.m. and asked me to assist their team that was arriving from Ranikhet," Gupta said. "I was informed very late, and they didn't give me any concrete information, as they didn't know too much at that time."

Gupta also said instructors and students on Plotkin's trip didn't inform an Indo-Tibetan Border Police post located less than a mile from the site of Plotkin's fall.

"When the students came down to take the first group of students back up to the chai shop from Lilam Village, the [Indo-Tibetan Border Police] officials had asked the students if an incident had happened but weren't given any answers," Gupta said in Hindi. "If they had taken assistance from the [police] right away, some additional efforts could have been made on that very evening."

But Palmer said it was not the School's intention to keep the Indo-Tibetan Border Police in the dark.

"I don't believe we ever decided not to inform [police] at all. It was a student group — maybe they didn't know what they should do," Palmer said. "But [the National Outdoor Leadership School] at no point made any decision not to inform anybody of anything. We informed people we thought could help us."

Palmer also noted that the nearby Indo-Tibetan Border Police post was a supply post, and it wasn't necessarily equipped to help in rescue efforts.

"Supply post doesn't say to me people are qualified to do search and rescue in high altitude," Palmer said.

But Jaswant Singh Rathore, sub-divisional magistrate in Munsiyari, said the Indo-Tibetan Border Police post in Lilam Village carries supplies to the highest Army posts in the area and is thus very well-equipped and experienced with the terrain.

Despite inconsistencies between company officials and authorities in India, Palmer insists the School did its best with the information it had at the time.

"It's pretty easy after the fall to try to pull things apart," Palmer said. "I feel the institute handled itself very well, was very thoughtful about how it was going about the work and really held nothing back in terms of doing the work, and I think that that is worth noting. Tom's death is horrible. It's the worst possible outcome you could imagine."


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