This is part 2 of my 3 part series sharing my experiences during the Nepal earthquake. Click here for part 1.
April 26, 2015: One day after the Nepal earthquake
I opened my eyes in the little hotel room in Kathmandu, took in a breath and stretched. Sunshine poured through the window and shone on a crooked painting hanging on the wall. It was like waking up with a hangover noticing random artifacts from a wild night and piecing together the story. The earthquake replayed in my mind. The moment the bed started shaking. The room tossing me around like a ping pong ball. The moment I thought, I might die any moment. I remembered people screaming, dead bodies piled in the street and the solemn whisper of the little Nepali man, “The temples fall. Our heritage, gone.”
I got up, drank some water and blew Kathmandu dust out of my nose. The generator was running and the Internet worked so I checked messages.
CNN emailed asking about doing a phone interview. There were separate messages from four classmates from Menasha Wisconsin, my old high school. They asked about Renee Noffke, a girl a few years ahead of our class whom I didn’t know personally.
I’d heard rumors that many people were stuck in the mountains without food or medical aid. Langtang, the village, was said to be completely gone. A massive landslide had apparently wiped it off the face of the earth. But that’s not what I wanted to tell them.
Down in the lobby a group of Germans sat glued to the TV. The quake damaged transportation and communication infrastructures for hundreds of miles—infrastructures necessary for relief. Yet, somehow we still had TV. Unbelievable images flashed one after the other: completely leveled villages in the remote Himalayas. Major highways cracked in half. Buildings shaken from their foundations leaned against each other. A civilian pulled another man, still alive, from a pile of bricks that had completely buried him. Avalanches had buried mountain climbers. I felt the shock of grief when I saw the unidentifiable remains of places I’d photographed days earlier or planned to visit just before the earthquake struck. What if I’d left an hour earlier?
News clips from the Nepal earthquake:
Cynthia and the French couple walked into the lobby. “Did you feel the aftershock last night?” Cynthia asked.
“There was a big aftershock in the middle of the night. It didn’t wake you up?”
“No, I was out like a light I guess.”
We had some fruit, all that was available at this point, and set out to find the Red Cross. Before we got out of the alley, the Earth shook again. Hard. We’d become used to aftershocks but this was big. This was an earthquake. We ran to the lot I’d been in the day earlier and dropped to the ground and waited until the shaking eased. After a few minutes we set out, barely fazed. We walked along Kanti Path, the same gloomy route I’d taken the day before.
People still milled back and forth in all directions. Some carried debris. Some camped on the sidewalk. Tourists power walked pulling suitcases. “I wish them luck,” I said to my companions. “The news said the airport shut down and thousands of people are camping there desperate to get out.” On the corner ahead a few men argued, a street dog barked at them. Around the corner a backhoe crawled down the middle of the road. Bulldozers and heavy equipment had already begun clearing piles from Kanti Path.
I spotted a couple men wearing Nepal Red Cross vests. Delighted, I approached them. “Excuse me. We want to help somehow. Could you direct us to a location where we could volunteer?”
They spoke Nepali to each other and looked at us. “Okay, follow us.”
At about 1:00 pm we arrived at the Metropolitan Police Office. “Wait here” one of the men said. We waited about fifteen minutes in a guarded area. There were dozens of volunteers and police resting under tents. A representative introduced himself.
“They tell me you want to help. What can you do?”
“We want to help in any way,” I said. “We’ll hand out water, deliver food, move bricks, or whatever. Just tell us what we can do and where to go.”
He paused a moment, “All volunteers went to the bad places. You can find a place where they’re doing rescue and help there,” he said. “Tell them you came here and we sent you,” he added. We showed him a map and asked him to point out where these areas were. “You can go here, to the new bus stand. Or here,” he pointed. None were close, an hour or more by walking a labyrinth of streets we didn’t know.
“Can you get us a ride there?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Come back tomorrow and maybe you can go with the others in the morning,” he said.
“What about Durbar Square?” I asked. “What about the camps? Don’t they need help there?”
“You could go there. The people in the camps have water. They have food. They are asking for tents because rain is coming. The best thing you can do is go where people need help and start helping. But you should wait until tomorrow.”
Now I understood a bit more how difficult organizing help would be with so much damage and so few resources. We were eager to help, but they only told us to wait. We walked away, discouraged.
My companions proceeded to the French consulate to see about getting food and a bed. I headed toward Durbar Square, hoping to get “after” photos to match photos I took before the earthquake shook the city to shambles. Along the way I passed the big open camp I’d passed the day before. Curious about the scene, I climbed over an old decorative brick gate that had fallen.
Thousands of people occupied what looked like a fairground or soccer field. Now it was a refugee camp. People filled the bleachers as if there was a championship game. A line of nearly a hundred people held empty bottles waiting to fill up at a water truck. Exhausted people slept anywhere they could. Children ran around laughing and playing, seemingly oblivious to the horror. It was the most uplifting thing I’d seen in two days.
As I walked through the camp I found a group of guys trying to force long thin strips of bamboo into the dry, hard ground. They seemed to be trying to bend them into a hoop frame with each end sticking in the ground, but to no avail. I stopped to talk with them and take a photo.
The voice of the Red Cross director echoed in my mind: “The best thing you can do is go where people need help and start helping.”
I grabbed an end of bamboo and tried to secure it in the ground. My background in construction led me to realize we needed stronger material. We needed beams, rope and something to dig into the ground. I remembered people carrying things like this in the street. I asked the best English speaker to translate: “Tell everyone I will help, but I need to find materials.” By the looks on their faces, I didn’t think they believed me.
I crawled back over the block gate, crossed the main road, and walked a few blocks. That’s when I found the remains of the Dharahara tower. The 183-year-old, two hundred foot brick tower was now a twenty-foot brick stub. Enormous sections of the tower and piles of bricks taller than me littered the square. A motorcycle, crushed like a tin can, sat in front of a line of closed shops. Dozens of people stood on the bricks looking at the site as though it was an exhibit. I snapped photos wondering how many bodies lay under those bricks.
I couldn’t help but think of people I’d recently eaten with, joked and shared stories with. I wondered if they were among the dead. What about the German girl we’d eaten with the night before the earthquake? She hadn’t made it back to the hostel. Was she visiting the tower when it fell? And what about the climber I spent time with in the Himalayas two weeks prior? He was going on an expedition to the summit of Ama Dablam. He would have been on the mountain the day the earthquake hit. If so, he was surely dead. But I was alive. So fortunate to be alive. My chest tightened and my heart raced. Before I got too emotional, I climbed over piles of the tower into a maze of alleys. As I walked I scanned for materials to build a shelter, then remembered the wall at my hotel that collapsed. There were aluminum beams and other metal brackets in that rubble. That’s what we needed to build the frame! I walked faster.
For nearly an hour I walked. Along the way, I passed new scenes of sadness. I stuffed my pockets with straps, wires and anything that could tie the beams together.
Finally I made it to the hotel. I told the Alex and Sujan, the friendly hosts at the front desk, that I’d take the scraps to help the people at the camp. They happily obliged. I tore the thin metal from the sheetrock, carefully removed the screws and made a pile. There was more material than I could carry in one trip.
It had been nearly two hours since I left the camp. I was hungry and figured the refugees were too. In my room I stuffed food, a flashlight and my multi-tool into my backpack. Downstairs I heaved a stack of aluminum onto my shoulder and headed back to the camp. Not even a quarter of the way back, the muscles in my arm burned from carrying the metal on my shoulder.
When I got to the campsite, there were more tents and more people. I searched through the crowd until I saw the group I promised to help. They sat looking defeated. As I walked toward them, a tall, thin man tapped the one who’d translated my message and pointed to me. They stood up, along with the rest, looked at me and began cheering. I stopped, we looked at each other and I tossed the metal from my shoulder and said “Okay, let’s build this!” In that moment I felt one of the most rewarding, powerful feelings I’d ever felt. Scraps, bare hands and drive were all it took. I held back tears of an emotion I can’t describe.
I gave the food and the flashlight to the women and children sitting to the side. The men grabbed the metal and looked it over. We used body language and simple English to decide how to use it. A crowd gathered as I made four-foot lengths with the multi-tool. I passed them to a guy about my age. A young, smiley guy helped me bend the thicker pieces in half. He passed them to a few others who tied it all together. Within fifteen minutes we had a frame. We threw the tarp over the frame and had a shelter. We exchanged hugs and hi-fives. Helping them was inspiring. It felt natural and good. I needed to help more.
“Wait for an hour and I’ll bring more,” I told them. Back at the hotel, I strapped two boards to my backpack and heaved another load of aluminum on my shoulder. I returned to a different scene at the camp. The Nepal military distributed large orange tarps. The rumor was they’d come from the Indian government. There were many more tents and people. Rain clouds moved in making the entire scene dark and ominous. Everyone rushed, trying to get their shelters up before the storm.
I searched for the original group, but couldn’t find them. A few kids ran to me and grabbed at the metal. “Please, please,” they cried. In less than a minute that few kids became a crowd. I gave one beam to a woman, another to a boy, setting the rest on end for them to grab. When the material was gone, they were gone in an instant. A group of Nepali men, about my age, approached me. “Why are you here?” one asked.
“I was helping some people earlier and just brought the rest of that metal from my hotel.” I said.
“Why do you help those people? You know them?”
“No, earlier I talked with some guys that needed help building a tent.”
“Oh, that’s good. Experts say another earthquake is coming at five o’clock. You come stay at our tent. It is safer.”
I knew it would be safer to stay in the open if another earthquake hit in the night. It was possible that my hotel would collapse. There was no way to know. The rumor that “experts” predicted another earthquake seemed unrealistic since scientists can’t predict earthquakes. Regardless, there’s a suspension of rationale in frightful situations.
“Please come,” he said again.
“Okay, but I need to get my bags from my hotel.”
One of the guys walked with me to help carry my stuff back to the camp. When we arrived, my three French friends were waiting. They’d been to the French consulate and gotten food and a bed. “I’m sure they will let you in. It’s a disaster, how can they turn you down?” Cynthia said. I worried about my photography gear in the refugee camp and the hotel falling in on me. They were insistent that we stay together. It seemed reasonable, but I felt torn. After weighing the options, I told the man, “I’m sorry, my friends insist I come with them.”
“Okay,” he said. “But please stay outside, my friend. The earthquake is coming. I’m going away from the buildings now.” We shook hands and he rushed off. I knew there was no perfect choice.
I left my bags at the hotel for the time being, unsure how the French consulate would turn out. We hailed taxi. Just before dusk we got to the consulate gate. Cynthia did all the talking, in French, but the guard harbored suspicion. She pointed at me explaining something in a distressed tone. Finally the man in charge motioned us in. Just as I walked into the doorway, he stopped me with his arm.
“Parlez-vous Francais?” He asked me.
“No, I only speak English.”
Before I could take another step, he guided me out and started speaking to the others in French. I guessed he said something like “He can’t even speak French and this is a place for French people. It is too full. You were lucky I let you back in. He has to leave.”
Cynthia’s mouth dropped. She argued, but got nowhere. She looked at me and apologized profoundly. I knew she’d tried, but I was upset at my choice to come there. That guy was a dick. “It’s no big deal. But it’s getting dark and I need to start walking because there are no taxi’s here.” I didn’t look forward to a few miles of walking back to Mum’s Home in flip-flops, but I had no choice.
I hadn’t eaten since the breakfast fruit. My stomach growled as I began the long, tiring walk. The walk was pitch dark and desolate. My feet burned with the friction of every step. But I arrived without any issues. I made small talk with Alex, who sat alone at the front desk. He asked me, “Do you know what dada means?”
“No, tell me.”
“In Nepali,” he said, “dada means brother. You are the last guest here, dada. Everyone else went away.”
I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing, but I shook his hand and said, “Thank you, dada, thank you for everything. I’ll see you in the morning.” I went upstairs and collapsed in bed. I was out before the generator ran out of fuel and sputtered to a stop.
This is part 2 of 3 of my story of surviving the Nepal earthquake. Come back tomorrow for day 3 into 4 and my flight out of Kathmandu.
For day 1 of the Nepal earthquake story, click here.