An Earth Shattering Finale
[I had received several posts from Matt in India since his last one, but hadn’t gotten the chance to post them here. Since then, he’d gone back to Nepal, where his mother and brother had gone to meet him. What follows below is his first-hand account of the earthquake in Nepal. We’d been joking for weeks about Matt’s just barely missing disaster on this trip. This time, it no longer seems funny.]
I am writing this post on a baseball field, under a tent within a compound which houses and supports American government personnel in Nepal. I arrived in Kathmandu from India the second time yesterday, April 24th. Earlier that day, my brother Tom and my mother arrived in Kathmandu as well. We have been together in Kathmandu for about 24 hours now, and our current top priority is to leave Nepal as soon as possible.
At 10 AM this morning, my mom, Tom, and I left our hotel, which happened to be adjacent to the infamous Alobar1000, and set out for Monkey Temple. I had already been to Monkey Temple, but for our first of three full days in Kathmandu, I decided to tag along with the others and re-run through a few big sights. To get to the temple we had to walk out of Thamel, our hotel’s district at the heart of the city, and make our way across a river to a hill overlooking the city on the Western end of Kathmandu. The walk takes about forty minutes and demonstrates the best Kathmandu has to offer: windy streets, dirt roads, old temples, and lots of hippies.
We arrived at the base of the hill by 11:15 AM. Monkey Temple is on top of the hill’s summit, and the only way to get there is to trudge up a hundred or so stone steps of increasing height. The hill was more crowded than last time I was there, with dozens of individuals slowly meandering their way up. As before, little stalls lined the stairs and the merchants harassed the poor tourists. Monkeys climbed trees, fences and small shrines, eating everything in their path and looking like adorable little furry humans.
Due to our slow pace (my mom and brother alleged jet lag), it took us thirty minutes to reach the peak. Right before getting to the top, we were stopped by a small ticket stand and each charged a relatively steep sum of 200 rupees to enter. We paid climbed the last few stairs to reveal the whole temple. At the center is a white structure which looks like an upside down, swirly cone. Surrounding the cone on four points are four white towers, roughly three stories high. Around the towers on two adjacent sides are a row of brick buildings which house a monastery and a couple of shrines. On the other two sides are a pair of two, square based, two-story brick structures which housed their own shrines, and a series of platforms jutting out from the hill-top which provide great views of Kathmandu. This local geography will be relevant momentarily.
Rather than examine the central structure, we took a left as we got to the summit and made our way over to one of the look-out points. Since we were facing east from the western end of the city, most of Kathmandu lay before us. At the city center we could see the Sundhara, a white lighthouse-like tower which I had climbed during my last visit. Adjacent to the tower is Basantapur, a collection of pagodas and large buildings which make up one of the main palaces for the now-defunct royal family of Nepal. Most of the buildings in the city are three to four stories tall, and look like well built shanties. Despite their shoddy appearance, Kathmandu’s architecture has color and charm, and looks nothing like the similar poor cities throughout Indian and China (my brother remarked that it looked vaguely like Rio de Janeiro, especially with the mountains in the distance).
As I turned away from the lookout point, I felt the first rumble. I don’t know if I heard it or felt it first, or if the two feelings were so closely aligned that I couldn’t differentiate between them. Either way, it was a low, deep bass that seemed to come from the city itself. At first, I briefly dismissed it as construction, despite how absurd it would be for construction to be large and loud enough to disturb this isolated temple.
Then the rumbling started to grow. Within five seconds of its start, it was clear that everyone was aware it. Most people stopped in their tracks, others gripped the railing or leaned against a nearby building. I stared at my feet.
The rumbling grew more. Within fifteen seconds of the start it took on a defined shape. The ground shook side to side. I stuck my arm out for support and landed against the white structure at the central buildings corners. Cries rang out around me. My mom and brother were somewhere behind me, but I didn’t know where. Everyone I could see was still frozen in place but now trying to stay on their feet.
The rumbling grew. Twenty seconds after the start of the rumbling, everyone began to move. People darted in different directions around me. They must have known more than me, because I tried to stay in place. By this point I had realized we were in an earthquake, but having never personally experienced one before I had no idea what to do, and everything was moving too fast for me to make any rational decisions. I leaned against the white building.
The rumbling grew. I was being jostled from side to side with every tremor. They seemed to come every few seconds. Debris began to fall around me. I didn’t have the time or stability to see where it was coming from but bricks were smashing on the ground behind and in front of me. I had to move. I had to get away from the buildings.
The rumbling grew. I stumbled forward, moving between the white building on my right and the square-based brick building to my left. I could hear screams and cracking buildings over the increasingly loud rumbling. A chunk of the white building not much smaller than myself fell out of the structure and landed five feet in front of me. I turned to my left and tripped alongside the brick building. When I got to the far end of it, as far as possible from the crumbling white structure, I crouched on the ground and put my arms over my head.
The rumbling grew. I briefly lifted my head and caught a glance of dozens of people crowding on a large platform in front of me. They were crowding near the railing of a platform jutting out from the summit, where under normal circumstances they could get another great view of the city. Currently it looked to be the furthest possible place on the entire hill-top away from another building. Everyone pushing against the far railing looked terrified, but they also looked safer than I was.
I still had no idea where my mom and brother were.
Through the violent side-to-side rocking, I pushed forward. A few other stragglers were still close to the central structure as I was, but they seemed to have the same idea I did, and were making their way for the summit edges. Using the railing, I managed my way down a short staircase onto the jutting platform. I stumbled over to the railing and looked back at the temple. All of the buildings were being rocked back and forth. The central structure seemed to be holding strong, but the white towers and the brick buildings were rapidly falling apart. Huge chunks had already been flung off and were collecting into rubble piles on the ground.
I was afraid that a piece of building might traverse the twenty feet from the temple area to where I was standing. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I looked over the railing away from the temple and saw only mountain side. A few individuals had jumped over and were hugging trees in the light forest and shrubs. I considered doing the same but it dawned on me that if the shaking got bad enough the very platform I was standing on might break off and slide down the hill, thereby crushing any people under it. That was probably not architecturally possible, but in the moment, I was ready to consider anything.
The rumbling grew. It reached its apex. I turned back to the temple complex and saw my mom and brother stumble down the same path I had taken. Behind them larger and larger chunks flew off the brick building and crashed in puffs of brown smoke mere feet behind them. The smoke clouds engulfed them as they ran over to the hopeful sanctuary which I and dozens of others crowded on. Behind the brick building, the white tower continued to struggle, until a handful of rapid and particularly intense tremors tipped the scales. This three story tower crumbled before my eyes in seconds. It looked like a controlled demolition.
I thought the whole place might come down. I thought the central dome might collapse on itself and the side buildings along with it. I thought Monkey Temple would be wiped off the map.
Then, in maybe ten seconds, the rumbling slowed, and then stopped.
I’m fuzzy on the timelines. My best guess is that the main quake lasted 1.5 to 2 minutes, but I can’t say for sure.
When it ended, I was standing beside my mom, my brother, and two dozen other terrified other individuals. We had to get off the hill-top as soon as possible, but we weren’t sure if it was safe to go near the buildings. Could an aftershock happen at any moment? However, there was no nearby exit, and the only exit besides the entrance was on the other side of the temple, so we went back the way we came.
Within seconds of the quake’s stopping, I pulled out my camera and began snapping everything in sight. We had a view of the entirety of Kathmandu in front of us and it did not look pretty. White smoke clouds rose out of particular clumps of buildings spread throughout the city. Even from the temple’s position of isolation I could hear a constant background of cries emanating from the city along with innumerable honking cars.
The area around the central structure was entirely covered with piles of rubble, mostly brick. About a quarter of the brick structure was gone and only the base and a jagged, broken wall remained of the nearest white tower. I’m not sure what happened to the other towers. A dozen individuals ran into a nearby monastery, possibly to save its artifacts, possibly to save its monks. Fortunately I didn’t see any casualties.
We quickly descended the stairs alongside dozens of others fleeing the temple. Half way down the hill we came to a clearing where the stairs are less steep and dotted with small stone shrines. The three of us went to a dirt area beside the staircase where others were standing and sitting. Within a few minutes, maybe 40 individuals had piled into the clearing. Some were crying while others seemed to be in shock. Nearly all were taking out cell phones and desperately trying to call someone, probably either the Nepali equivalent of 911, or a family member. Of course the phones were down due to the surge in use.
About five minutes after the first quake ended, we began to feel the after shocks. They came at decreasing intervals, until they settled into a range of about 10-15 minutes apart. These tremors were nowhere near as bad as the initial quake, but I’m sure they were still doing damage to the city. With every shock, a cry arose from the city, eerily reminiscent of the sound of a passing roller coaster in an amusement park, except the cries were fearful rather than joyful.
A Japanese man standing near us remarked that the earthquake was not over. He put his hand on the metal fence which surrounded his clearing and then advised us to stay where we were for a while. I touched the fence and felt it was still shaking.
With no buildings and only a handful of sturdy looking trees in the vicinity, we figured the clearing was an ideal place to get our bearings. There was a small gap in the trees through which we could see a chunk of the city. The individual white clouds throughout the city had merged into a general haze which further added to Kathmandu’s usual air pollution.
After ten minutes of looking out at the city, my brother noticed that he couldn’t find the Sundhara, the lighthouse-like building near the city center. I tried to find it and could not as well. We used our respective maps to try to coordinate its position, but the tower was nowhere in sight. It had fallen.
The Sundhara was probably ten stories tall, and (if I recall correctly) had been rebuilt 150 years ago after the old Sundhara had fallen during an earthquake. That means that the earthquake we just experienced had been strong enough to topple a 150 year old building designed to withstand earthquakes.
I remembered when I went up the Sundhara a month ago. There had been dozens of people standing on the platform wrapping around its top, plus dozens more inside. The earthquake had happened during mid-day on a Saturday. I’m sure it was crowded.
It was about that point that the magnitude of our situation began to dawn on us. A massive earthquake had just hit an impoverished country. Phones were off line. Electricity, plumbing and internet were also almost certainly compromised. The quake was so strong that it had destroyed century+ year old monuments. And here we were on the side of a hill with no idea where to go or what to do.
For the next hour we stayed in the clearing while we tried to figure out what to do. We were still experiencing aftershocks but at ever wider intervals, so it would likely be safe to go to the city soon. We couldn’t just sit on the side of the hill forever but it wasn’t clear where we should go.
Our objective was to find Internet access so that we could inform family in America that we were alive, but of course we didn’t have a data plan in Nepal and the Internet was likely down everywhere. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, where shabby 4-6 story buildings leaned on top of each other over narrow roads, and therefore was the single most dangerous place in all of Kathmandu. According to a bystander who managed to get his phone briefly working, the airport was closed.
I proposed the American Embassy. I figured the building was probably well-built, and equipped with Wifi and phones. In a worst case scenario, the Embassy could possibly even evacuate us from Nepal. At the very least the Embassy would tell us what the hell to do.
Unfortunately the American Embassy was on the opposite side of the city. The fastest route there was through Thamel, the city center, where our odds of getting crushed by a building were highest. Instead we opted to take a long route around the city center wherein we would travel along with flat river until we cut accross a more remote, and therefore smaller building-filled part of the city.
With images of 9/11 flashing through my mind, I advised my mom and brother to get masks for the walk (I had one from my last visit to Kathmandu). Given that we were far above the city, we didn’t actually know how much damage or carnage there was, but if there were collapsed buildings throughout the city there would be all manner of dust and debris in the air. Even if we managed to dodge the falling buildings, we didn’t want to die of mesothylioma or something in a few years anyway.
As we were preparing to leave, we bumped into a guy who seemed to know something about what was going on. He turned out to be a UNICEF employee based out of Burma who had come to Kathmandu for a few days on a training exercise. Now he was returning to his UNICEF camp to begin aid operations in his new disaster zone.
The first sentence out of UNICEF guy’s mouth was, “lots of people have died.” Then he explained that the next few days will probably be OK, then everything will go to shit soon afterwards. Given how awful Nepali infrastructure is at the best of time, it is surely in shambles now. The power is out, the water won’t work, and the local emergency services will be almost nonexistent. He advised us to stock up on food, water, and clothes as we tried to get out of Nepal as soon as possible. To that end, he concurred that the US Embassy was our best bet.
My mom noted that when a disaster like this occurs in America, the affected region is swiftly filled with helicopters and other emergency services. We didn’t see a helicopter until more than 40 minutes after the first shock. As we walked down the stairs to enter the city proper, we didn’t hear ambulance or fire engine sirens, we heard regular car horns and a dull background cry. We were in a Third World disaster zone.
We walked down the hill and set out for the American Embassy. We didn’t immediately see any collapsed buildings, but the streets were filled with people. They formed groups at every available clearing, ranging in size from a single family to over a hundred individuals. Older women and younger children were usually sitting down, while the men paced and tried their cell phones with little luck.
Every two or three blocks we would see a fallen building. Sometimes the foundations had collapsed, other times it was the walls, and in extreme cases, I couldn’t tell which part had given out. With most of the city built on bricks, huge piles of clay rubble formed alongside the roads. People gathered around the ruins. Some took pictures, others mourned.
The river area was flat, with a road on either side and only one or two story buildings along the roads. It was safe territory. We walked for thirty minutes, passing by dozens of groups huddled by the side of the road. Not all were mournful or even worried. Some of the younger individuals even seemed excited. Occasionally we weren’t even sure if the earthquake had been much of a disaster at all, but then we would pass by another collapsed building and see another hundred-man group parked at an intersection, and the devastation would become real again. More importantly, if this is what it was like on the safer city outskirts, how bad was it in the city center?
As we walked, we would still get hit by the occasional tremor. Whatever pedestrians accompanied us on the streets would sprint for the middle of the road, where we were least likely to get hit by debris. The earthquake was still not over but it was clearly subsiding. We hoped it would come to an end soon.
After walking for an hour and a half we came upon a main road which lead to the embassy. This street was packed with pedestrians walking in both directions. Some people were trying to find their respective embassies like we were, others were headed for the nearest hospital, and some were trying to find their own safe clearings.
The Thai Embassy is in a wooded area along a side street which branches out from the main road. Alongside the embassy lay a collapsed brick wall, roughly ten feet high and maybe 100 feet long. The entire wall had fallen over onto the street. This was the first of many fallen brick walls I would see on the day, and I no longer trust brick walls as a stable architectural creation.
While walking down the main road, I noticed that nearly all of the stores lining the street were closed. The gaps in the building normally occupied by shops were covered with metal sheets and padlocked. Oddly, I saw a few groups of people crowded around some closed stores and I heard a loud, sharp banging emanating from the group. As I got closer to one, I saw a young guy using a rock to smash a padlock on a pharmacy.
On this street was one of the main hospitals in the city. Through a driveway opening I could see a large courtyard packed with people milling about. Outside the hospital on the road was one of the few instances of organized Nepali government action I saw that day. About ten Nepali police officers were standing around and shouting at pedestrians and random cars to move away from the hospital entrance. As far as I could, tell they were superfluous since no one seemed to be hanging around the entrance for long anyway, but these men and women were still shouting angrily at the top of their lungs.
After thirty minutes on the main street, we finally arrived at the American Embassy. It’s a sturdy-looking, one or two story marble building behind a parking lot and a metal fence. We showed the guards our passports and made our way to a help desk outside. A few minutes later, we were sat down in an outside waiting area, along with about ten other Americans who arrived shortly after us, and an Embassy employee told us the situation.
The guy said the earthquake clocked at a 7.2 to 7.4 on the Richter Scale. It had been felt at least as far away as Delhi. Kathmandu was hit especially hard, and Thamel, where our hoetl was located, had been hit the worst, with numerous collapsed buildings. He took our passport information and promised to contact a family member (we chose an uncle) but there wasn’t much else they could do for us at the Embassy. Instead, we would have to walk towards Thamel to another US Embassy compound called the “American Club,” where we would be provided with some type of shelter.
Though we were already exhausted from walking, we set out for the American Club, which was an estimated hour away. We walked silently and didn’t see anything new along the way with one exception.
At an intersection there was yet another collapsed brick wall. Two police men armed with assault rifles were standing near the wall for some reason and a small crowd was gathered at one part taking pictures of something. I got closer and saw a shape on the ground behind the collapsed wall, covered in a white cloth. It was a dead body.
The American Club turned out to be a rather large compound right at the heart of the city. It’s basically a living space for the hundreds of US federal government employees who for some reason are staffed in Nepal. We flashed our passports again, and after going through a security checkpoint, proceeded inside.
We were shepherded to a baseball field filled with close to 100 individuals who on any other day would appear to be having a picnic. There were more than a dozen young children playing around with medicine balls, adults standing in circles talking, and even a table with snacks and drinks. We were told that we could hang out here for the time being, so we sat on the grass and took advantage of the free food.
An hour later, an Embassy employee asked us to gather around for an announcement. He said that if we felt no earthquake tremor for 24 hours, then it was officially over. Until that point, we were all welcome to stay here on the field. Dozens of US citizens and a few non-US citizens had already flocked here and set up mini camps. US government employees would be taken to the Embassy, but the rest of us were free to make use of this safe haven.
Unfortunately, there was also a good chance of rain, so everyone who was here would have to pile under a tent set up in the field. Fortunately, this is the American government we are talking about here so we got about as nice of an improvised set up as we could ask for. The Embassy delivered absurdly warm, fuzzy blankets by the van load. They gave us super-efficient mats to out on the ground that were allegedly water and cold proof. They couldn’t provide Wifi because the Internet was down everywhere but they did set up ample power strips for charging phones (and my camera). They even got us MRE rations (Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner.
At one point, after we had already laid out our cozy pseudo-beds, the Embassy employee announced that if it did rain, the tents would not be sufficient to stop the ground beneath us from becoming soaked. So he invited us to get heavy wood palettes from a nearby storage area to sleep on top of. At the moment I’m opting out of the palette and hoping for the best.
Both my mom and the Embassy employee jokingly referred to us as “refugees,” and at the moment that seems pretty accurate. All of our luggage, except for what we carried on ourselves during the day, is still at our hotel, which may or may not still be standing. We are trapped in Nepal as long as the Kathmandu airport is down. Even if Nepal’s mountainside roads weren’t in shambles, we couldn’t take a bus out of the country to China or India since we don’t have visas. We managed to get one email out to my uncle and we are hoping he can work some magic to get us on a flight to Mumbai or Delhi relatively soon. If we ever do leave Nepal, we will just have to head back home, since all of Nepal seems to be in bad shape and tourist activity has certainly ground to a stand still.
Some people have managed to rig a radio or catch some bits of phone time and collect some information. We are now hearing that the earthquake was between a 7.8 and 8.0 on the Richter scale, which even I know is enormous. (As I write this at 10:12 PM, I am feeling the first tremor in about six hours.) The quake was felt from Bangladesh to Delhi, though the epicenter was Nepal, with Kathmandu getting the worst of it. We’ve heard that Mount Everest had a major avalanche, and it happens to be peak season for climbing. Worst of all, the death toll as of 7 PM was already up to 700, and that’s in the major cities alone.*
About an hour after we had all settled into out comfortable blankets under the tent, and some people had managed to use their phones, I heard a weeping from the corner. I looked up and saw a girl, probably a traveler in her mid to late 20s, kneeling with her hands on her face. After a moment she stood up and muffled her cries into a friend as they embraced. She seemed to be trying to hold back her tears but clearly couldn’t, even as she squeezed her friend with all her might. Nobody had actually heard what happened, but it was obvious.
This is an odd end to a crazy trip. I feel bad for my mom and brother for not being able to see much of Nepal. It’s a beautiful country well worth visiting. I’m guessing I’ll be home within four or five days, though with all of the people trying to leave Nepal right now, I could be here for weeks.
*Irfan: As of April 26, 7 pm EST, the estimated death toll had reached 2400.
Postscript, April 26, 2015 (Irfan): More first-hand accounts of the earthquake, as reported in The New York Times.