15 May 2015

All Shook Up

Bhaktapur – Kathmandu - the place of devotees. It is also known as Bhadgaon or Khwopo – it is an ancient Newar city in the east corner of the Kathmandu valley.

This is where I was on Tuesday 2nd May 2015 when the second earthquake struck Nepal and the northeast part of the country. It hit about a quarter to one in the afternoon local time and it measured 7.4 magnitude on the Richter scale and it’s epicentre was somewhere to the Base of Mount Everest.

To the northeast of Kathmandu.

The first one struck on Saturday 25th April 2015 at a few minutes after noon. Its epicentre was near the Gorkha valley. It measured 7.8 on the Richter scale.

The Gorkha valley is about 80 kilometres to the northwest of Kathmandu.

There have been perhaps a hundred aftershocks between the shakes.

I was not here for the first.

But I was here for the second.

Earthquakes that is.

Before these two events the last big earthquake in Nepal was in 1934. It is referred to as the Bihar earthquake and it recorded 8.0 magnitude on the Richter scale.

The first quake has already been named the Gorkha quake

The really big quakes seem to have been lunchtime events.

The Bihar earthquake struck at a little after 2.00pm in the afternoon.

I was in Bhaktapur at the time of the second of the 2015 earthquakes.

Looking - somewhat ironically - at broken temples.

In the city of Bhaktapur.

The damage here is enormous.

The loss is staggering.

Mother Earth has unleashed a most detestable wickedness upon a country and people that has so very little.

More than a hundred complete villages have been lost from the first quake.

I don’t know how many from the second.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

An entire nation is timorous and people are sleeping on the streets.

Children are having nightmares.

The Great Temples have been broken.

Mourning Prayers are being chanted at dawn and dusk.

Burial rituals for the Hindu and Buddhist are continuous.

So many people have died.

The monsoons are coming.

This is an already impoverished nation whose geography is as impossible and inaccessible and isolated as it is spectacular and beautiful.

Of course it is.

It is the most the most gorgeous of places that are the hardest to get to.

I learned that a very long time ago.

Enormous slabs of the Himalaya were sliced off in the earthquake and they rushed down through the great valleys.

Mighty avalanches that devoured all before them.

This happened in the northwest at Langtang then in a band that went through the Gorkha valley and on all the way through to Mount Everest in the northeast.

I can only imagine.

Again this was after the first earthquake.

I’m not sure of the damage after the second one.

It only happened less than 24 hours ago and I haven’t heard any of the reports yet. Telephone lines and the Internet were down for a while and they are intermittent now.

So is electricity.

I think I was in a pretty bad place in an urban environment for an earthquake.

Not that I think there is a good place to be

Here is exactly where I was:

We were out in the open – in a long and narrow street with tall and damaged buildings on either side of us.

I was with my Nepalese friends Bhim and Kumar.

We had driven specifically to Bhaktapur to see the broken temples. I wanted to see the damage done by earthquake number one.

We weren’t expecting number two.

My friends and I were dawdling and pausing often sadly to reflect and photograph the damage done to temples and surrounding buildings when Kumar suddenly clutched at my arm and I simultaneously saw a crowd of terror struck people running our way.

Some appeared to be looking up.

I looked up and buildings were cracking up and falling apart and as my brain was processing.





It flung me around and I could easily have fallen.

But I didn’t.

Kumar still clutched at my arm and I looked around for Bhim but I couldn’t see him.

I saw a lot of people still running.

A lot of people crouched in doorways.

Mothers and fathers clutching frightened children.

There was terror in everyone’s eyes.

I could feel it.

There was some crying but not a lot of screaming and I felt another wave of the earth moving under my feet and a loud thump of a part of a building hitting the ground somewhere behind me.

Even though it was the earth that was moving I had to look up.

That is where death would come from.

Between waves the noise of stone and wood groaning and straining was the most frightening noise of all. I was dancing on the spot with Kumar clutching on my arm with his eyes shut and whimpering.

My eyes were all the time looking up and I was calling out my friend Bhim’s name.

I was moving away from the buildings that seemed the most fragile.

I was dancing on my toes and moving like a Scottish line dancer.

Kumar was attached to me with both his hands and he was swaying behind me.

He was weightless but his hands were biting into me

I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.

I was on edge.

I was scared shitless.

I was all the time looking up.

Bhim shot out of nowhere and I near jumped out of my skin.

“Are you ok Bhim?” I asked.

Glancing briefly at him but still mostly looking up.

I was frantic.

I glanced again and reached out for him and touched his face. I wanted to be reassured by touching him that he was alright.

A whole façade of a large building crashed not far from where we had come from and we all jumped.

“I am OK brother” he replied.

He too – like me - was now dancing on the spot.

Kumar opened his eyes and clutched now at Bhim as well.

Bhim was unhurt.

Hic cheek was hot and rough to touch and I could feel the trembling of his body.

Or was that mine?

Bhim told us had taken shelter in a doorway.

Nepalese have been drilled to do this since childhood.

They practice at schools and at offices.

The ground continued to shake and we had to get out from where we were.

“Where is the big square Bhim and Kumar?”

“That way” Bhim replied.

He pointed to where the building had collapsed.

Kumar closed his eyes.

“We must go” I insisted.

“Tell everyone in Nepali to go to the open ground in big square”.

I repeated this several times and Bhim and Kumar started yelling it out in Nepalese and people started gathering and running.

We paused first where the building had fallen as we had to climb over a large pile of it and I noticed at once that the doorway had collapsed as well. It was covered in brick and rubble so there was no way to tell if anyone had taken shelter in it.

“Generations of now questionable safety training” was all I could think.

I think I laughed out loud.

I was manic.

All the buildings on both sides of the long street we were in were three times the height of the width of the street. If any one of them came down they would come down across the entire street.

Big pieces of buildings fell off but they seemed to fall off slowly.

Like in slow motion.

I felt like we could avoid those.

It was the smaller pieces that scared me the most.

Single bricks or clumps of mortar or bits of cement.

Hurtling down.

They scared the shit out of me. 

To say the least.

We stopped at open areas when they appeared and when there were aftershocks we just stopped and went back to back and looked up.

There was a lot of people calling out and there was weeping but it wasn't loud.

There were eerie patches of near silence when it was just the buildings making the noise.

Creaking and crashing. 

The ground moved underneath of us in surges.

It rolled.

We called out if we saw buildings moving or bits of buildings falling off and we bolted accordingly.

We did this a few times.

We stopped when I was buggered too.

In the smaller open safer areas.

So I could catch my breath.

I still looked up though.

My neck hurt.

Dust in my eyes made them sting. 

I was wearing thongs and I am not very fit or used to running.

Even to save my life.

We paused at one more open area and both Bhim and Kumar pointed out to me a building that had collapsed and only the doorway seemed to had survived. Somewhat bizarrely during our run through the gauntlet I had teased him about the decades old Nepali government educational campaign of a go-to-a-dooway-in-an-earthquake and its merits. Here it is:

I paused to take the photograph and immediately apologized to Kumar and to Bhim and to the Nepalese Government.

Good policy Nepal. 

It may well have saved many lives.

It took us no more than twenty minutes I reckon to make it to the big Bhaktapur square.

It felt like hours.

We saw a lot of buildings and bits of building fall along the way.

Some fell pretty close.

We gathered a lot of people on our run and I suspect there were perhaps a few left behind underneath the rubble of bricks and mortar.

We may well have climbed over some in the rubble in our flight to the big square.

I am harrowed now at the thought of that.

I am despaired.

There were a lot of people at the square.

Like us they were all petrified.

All of them.

Many were grazed and bruised.

More were pouring in.

We waited it out for a few hours with only a few more little aftershocks then we made our way to the car and straight back to the school to check on the kids and the building. Kumar and Bhim were frantically trying to contact their families to check on their welfare.

All electricity, Internet and telephone lines were down.

The drive back was agonizingly slow.

Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets.

The roads were the safest open places for people to be.

The school was undamaged - well no more damaged than it was after the first quake I mean - and the  the children were not harmed.

Bhim and Kumar’s families were fine as well.

All were terrified of course.

They have been since Saturday 25th May.

It was a little after noon.

When Nepal was first all shook up.

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