Nepal earthquake recollections: I feel lucky to have survived

By Surendra Phuyalsurendra in office

It was nothing like I had experienced before. Nothing like the current generation has experienced before.

More than five weeks after the April 25 earthquake struck Nepal’s mountains, I still feel as if the ground is shaking. I feel so when I work at our temporary office in the southern part of Kathmandu. Or when I sleep inside a tent in the small garden of our house, which was damaged by the 7.8-magnitude quake and now being repaired.

As relief operations continue in the worst-affected districts around Kathmandu, the government of Nepal has put the death toll from that quake – plus another that rocked south of Mount Everest northeast of Kathmandu on May 12 — at more than 8,600.  

I will never forget the moments when the April 25 earthquake began. It was a near-clear afternoon and most Nepalese were enjoying the weekend, mostly with their loved ones inside or near their houses.

As the clock struck 11:57 a.m., the earth began to shake and shake —- quite violently. I was on the first floor of my wife’s parent’s house. Having devoured a big brunch, I was trying to take a nap and also recover from jetlag as I had just arrived from South Korea just a day before. But that was not to be. Soon after I lied down the ceilings and the building started shaking. It struck without warning and there was no time to run out of the building.

As the building shook, I stood under a doorframe somewhere in the middle of the building. It shook terribly. Moments later, it was calm and still again. I thanked God because the building didn’t collapse. I thanked God because I survived. Unlike me, everybody who was downstairs had run out of the building within seconds.

We were alive. I tried to call my parents – but the mobile phone network was busy and I couldn’t get through to them for three hours. Later, I realized everybody in my family was safe. We were heartbroken later, as we found out that my neighbor’s sister got buried under the stairs of a big building from which she was running for her life.

Once outside, I could see thick plumes billowing over the older parts of the city such as Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu, clearly indicating that a massive disaster had befallen.  Moments later I got a call from London – despite the jam in the mobile telecom network. Somebody wanted to speak to me live; he promised to call me back. But he couldn’t get through to me.

Surendra Phuyal,  a BBC World Service correspondent based in Kathmandu, Nepal, works from a temporary studio to present BBC Nepali's Dawn Show. "Bihanipakha"

Surendra Phuyal, a BBC World Service correspondent based in Kathmandu, Nepal, works from a temporary studio to present BBC Nepali’s Dawn Show, “Bihanipakha”

Scanning Facebook, Twitter and other sites, we found out that the big quake measured a magnitude of 7.8, with its epicenter in the Gorkha district in Nepal’s western hills (which is the ancestral home of Nepal’s former Shah kings as well as the renowned Gorkha soldiers.) Driving back home, I saw several old houses collapsed and the pinnacle of a famous temple broken. On social media, I saw photos of the landmark Darahara tower completely destroyed – and even some highways badly cracked.

For days, as we remained traumatized and hammered by aftershocks, one after another, all we could see on social and mainstream media was this: scenes of utter devastation, human tragedy at its worst.

On that fateful day, even the mountaineers seeking sheer adventure near the Everest Base Camp were not spared. Reports of tragedy striking both sides of the mountain – on the Nepali and the Chinese (Tibetan) side – continued to pour in for days. In all, 18 climbers were killed in avalanches triggered by the earthquake.

The worst tragedy perhaps happened in Langtang village north of Kathmandu, where I have been trekking almost every year in recent times. There, as hundreds of trekkers and guides stopped for lunch (in the peak spring trekking season), the entire village was buried under a huge landslide and avalanche that the quake triggered. Even now, over 200 people – nearly half of them foreigners – remain missing there.  (My colleague’s piece in this link has details plus photos)

It took less than a minute to bring down my country and push folks to their knees, to suddenly convert us into “quake victims.”

It took just another minute or so on May 12,  just when everybody thought the worst was over,  to cause further devastations in Dolakha and neighbouring districts. In that area, on the same afternoon, a U.S. rescue helicopter carrying Marines and Nepali Army men went missing; days later, it was found crashed on a hill near the famous pilgrimage site of Kalinchok. Everyone on board was dead.  Alas!

When that second big quake rocked our country, I was trying to wind up my days’ work at our office, which is located on the first floor of a five-story building in the heart of Kathmandu. But the building started shaking violently and me and my colleagues, screaming with hearts pounding, ran for cover under a ceiling in the central part of the room, hoping that, the area wouldn’t collapse or that we won’t get buried.

It was almost as big as the first one that  hit 17 days earlier. The U.S. Geological Survey put its strength at 7.3 magnitude, its epicenter south of Everest Base Camp.

Outside, I could see people panicking, visibly shocked, terribly nervous – not knowing what was going to happen next. Mother Earth was demonstrating strange behaviors, cracking without any warning and without following any pattern of the past earthquakes.

Phuyal’s temporary shelter in his garden, a tent that was still being used in early June as the old house was being repaired.

Phuyal’s temporary shelter in his garden, a tent that was still being used in early June as the old house was being repaired.

Tents started springing up again outside in open spaces. Aftershocks, measuring 4 and 5 magnitude, continued for days. The last one before filing this report was recorded early on June 1.  

By now, many quake-affected Nepalis have realized that it takes less than a minute to turn things upside down, to trigger an apocalypse.

Over 600,000 houses have been destroyed in the 14 districts of Nepal that are categorized as the worst-affected. With the monsoon season just a few weeks away, efforts are underway to build temporary shelters and provide relief materials to needy people.

Experts had warned the Nepal government about impending earthquakes underneath the Himalaya that Nepal needed to be concerned about, and to prepare for. Disaster preparedness remains one of the major agendas of donor agencies in Nepal, including USAID, in recent years. Heeding the experts’ suggestions, the government went on to enforce building codes. But the recent quakes proved how poorly they were enforced.

Nepal has experienced monumental damages — including the destruction of monuments enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Without any doubt, it will take years and years to rebuild. People are struggling. The government is struggling. And the aid agencies are struggling, too.

As a journalist, I also had to struggle to hold myself together as everything around me fell apart in front of my eyes. I  had to broadcast live on radio and TV and publish materials online and across social media platforms. I’m still struggling, trying to rebuild our house and trying to rid myself from the trauma and distress. I hope the worst is over now.  

On a positive note, perhaps the devastating quakes have reminded us that our biggest responsibility is to build safer houses and infrastructure. Perhaps it has offered us an opportunity: to start afresh and ensure that our construction is safe.

The bottom line: we have no choice but to stay prepared for a 9-magnitude quake, which can’t be ruled out in our portion of the earth. And nobody knows when that might strike.

(Surendra Phuyal, a 2003 Alfred Friendly Fellow hosted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a BBC World Service’s Correspondent based in Kathmandu Nepal. As a bilingual correspondent and producer he produces materials in Nepali and English. He’s also a presenter of the BBC Nepali Radio. He can be followed on twitter @surendraphuyal)