Nine trekkers died in a massive fire in the Kurangani hills in the Theni forests in Western Ghats while 27 managed to reach the foot hills.
The trekkers, all girls from the Madras Trekkers Club, had gone on an expedition to mark the Women's Day, camped at an estate on Saturday night. The fire broke out in Kurangani hills on Sunday afternoon when they were returning in batches.
Reports said that on seeing the thick smoke, the local guide took them through an alternative route to safety. Nine who got trapped in the fire died. Another report said that five of them while fleeing fell into a gorge and died.
Of the 27 who managed to return, 10 had got burns, not major, and had been admitted to local hospital, the district collector and others had been put up in the Theni guest house.
Another report said that in all they were 39 trekkers—27 from Chennai and 12 from Tirupur and Coimbatore. Among them were three children..
Among them dead was a young couple. The husband had just returned from Singapore and they were only recently married. Their plan was to return to Bodinaikanur on Sunday evening and then return to Chennai via Theni.
Dhanapal, father of Manishi, a trekker from Chennai who escaped, told reporters that their group split into small batches while returning and she and eight other girls from her group managed to reach Bodi safely.
He said that efforts were on to trace others with the help of their mobile phones. He reckoned it would be difficult if their mobile batteries had gone dead.
Hill tribes and volunteers came to the rescue of the trapped trekkers. Most of the trekkers were college students and IT professionals.
Local officials said that it was the trekkers who alerted their families through their mobile phones who in turn intimated the local authorities and fire and fire service personnel got into action.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman told reporters in New Delhi that a commando from Garuda of the Air Force went up the hills on Sunday night itself and were now looking for survivors and the bodies of those who died.
She said that since it was a steep hill, the commandos were looking for a landing spot for light helicopters which would be sent from Sulur base in Coimbatore.
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy who rushed to Madurai en route to Theni told reporters that action would be taken if the trekkers were found to be ameteurs. All efforts would be made to rescue the trapped.