Nepal Earthquake Survival Story: Part 1 (with photos)

In Asia, Featured Posts, Jesse's Journal, Narrative Essay, Nepal by Jesse Anderson7 Comments

This was posted on the anniversary of the April 25, 2015 Nepal Earthquake, to the minute.

For over fifty million years, Earth’s tectonic plates have shaped the continents we travel today. When the Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate, the Himalayan mountain range was born. As India pushes into China today, the Himalayas rise one centimeter per year. Deep below the mountains, pressure from the sticking plates builds. At the center of it all is Nepal—a poor and peaceful nation of 28 million people.

A great view of the sunrising behind Mt. Everest from the summit of Gokyo Ri.

A great view of the sun rising behind Mt. Everest from the summit of Gokyo Ri.

Eight of ten of the world’s tallest mountains are in Nepal. The tallest, Mt. Everest, reaches 29,029 feet (8,848m) above sea level. These towering peaks draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to Nepal each year. Himalayan tourism is vital to Nepal’s economy. Most Himalayan adventures begin in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. Home to a million people, Kathmandu rests in a beautiful valley at the foothills of the Himalayas.

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Looking over the Kathmandu Valley from inside the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace tower

I came to Nepal to photograph the Everest region and the eclectic culture and UNESCO world heritage sites of Kathmandu. Three days before my flight to Istanbul, the plates slipped. Nearly two hundred years of built up tension shook out across the land. With it came death and  destruction like I’d never seen, but also a magnificent display of human cooperation and resilience. This is my story of surviving the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

After a long day wandering the historic city streets, I relaxed and watched a movie at Hotel Mum’s Home. The bed began to tremble. It was slight, but definitely coming from the earth, not my bed or my imagination. That was a little earthquake! My first one. A novelty. After about ten seconds the tremble stopped. I went back to the movie with no idea what was coming.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A couple days later I reunited with my French friend, Cynthia, whom I’d met in India a month earlier. We sat at a café called Phat Kath and talked travel. Then Cynthia’s eyes widened. “Did you feel the earthquake the other day?”

“YES!” I said. “I forgot all about it. I’m glad you felt it too.” No one mentioned it to either of us and it hadn’t been in the news. “Earthquakes must not be a big deal in Nepal,” we joked. And we brushed it off. After parting ways, Cynthia sent me a link to an earthquake data website. The earthquake we’d felt was a 5.0 on the Richter Scale originating in western Nepal.

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Saturday April 25th, 2015: Zero hour of the Nepal Earthquake

Two days later, just before noon on a sunny Saturday, I sat on my bed checking a map. I was about to go on a street photography walk to the Durbar Square world heritage sites. The bed began to tremble, then shook violently. The room shook up, down, sideways and back. It felt like a giant had ripped the hotel from the ground and started shaking it. Pots crashed to the floor. Paintings banged on the wall. My senses disoriented, I could feel the deafening roar of the shaking city—the scariest sound I’d ever felt.

My adrenaline pumped. My heart thumped. Time slowed to a crawl. I jumped off the bed. Struggling to balance, I crashed into the desk. I stood with my knees bent and braced myself with both hands. I scanned the tiny room with wide eyes and razor sharp instinct. Ceiling might fall: bad. Window might break: bad. Doorframe can block my head and leads outside: Go. Now! I stumbled around the bed. The wooden doors of the vanity slammed open and closed, reaching out to smack me. I made it to the door, opened it and braced myself under the moving frame. I looked down the hall at the stairwell just ten meters to my right, then at the bed to my left. Stairwells are strong and sometimes remain standing when buildings fall. Maybe I should hide under the mattress. Walking even a short distance was nearly impossible because the floor bucked so violently. My instinct already knew: Wait for the right moment and run like hell. It’s all you can do.

The quake continued to rock the room for about a minute, though it seemed more like an hour. Thoughts began to flash. The prospect of a stranger pulling my mutilated body from wreckage wasn’t part of my plan. I had to do something good for the world before I died. Is this really happening? Am I about to die in an earthquake in Nepal?

A beautiful oil painting of the Himalayas shook on the wall, just as they were shaking outside the city. Watching the painting bounce was a peaceful distraction for a moment. Just as fast as the shaking came on, it stopped.

Video footage of Nepal earthquake from Kanti Path and Durbar Square in Kathmandu:

Life was was still and quiet again. Faint screams came from somewhere distant. I was alive. I was so flustered I didn’t know what to do so I brushed my teeth and recorded a video. Okay, now I better run like hell. I raced shoeless down three flights of stairs.

In the lobby, water from the fish tank covered the floor. Wide-eyed people huddled there chattering. The receptionist put her hand on my shoulder and asked, “Did you see it?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t see it, I felt it!” I turned to the crowd, “Is it safer inside or outside?” I asked anyone listening.

After a moment of puzzled looks, a local man answered with uncertainty, “Inside.” I looked past him at a wall that had collapsed into the dining room.

I rushed outside and saw tumbled brick walls and dazed, milling people. It seemed safer without a roof over my head so I ran back inside for my shoes and camera and ran back down to the alley. I climbed over bricks and took the first photo.

Photo from the alley outside Mum's Home hotel

Suddenly I felt disoriented. The ground was moving again. My heart jumped and I crouched to the ground. It was an aftershock. High-pitched screams cut through the low rumble of shaking buildings. I ran, half crouched, toward a group of people gathered in a parking lot, a safe distance from any buildings. To my amazement, a Korean couple I’d met trekking not far from Mt. Everest base camp a week earlier sat huddled with the group. I waved and smiled. “Hi. You okay?” I asked, my voice cheerful, as though we weren’t in the middle of a natural disaster.

“Oh, hi!” the wife said, with a surprised look. “We were in the street. Bricks fell down from the building. We ran here. So scared. Are you okay?” 

As we chatted, a local woman with the blank stare of shock and tears in her eyes walked near us. “Are you okay?” the Korean woman asked her. The local woman pointed toward a cluster of buildings surrounding my hotel. “My house there. The wall crack. I so scared. I come here. Daughter not here.” She covered her face and wiped away tears. Fortunately, her daughter showed up.

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Aftershocks rumbled frequently, some light, others strong enough to spike  my adrenaline. Every time the ground shook, the crowd screamed and dropped to the ground. Parents held their children. Strangers held each other. The Korean couple insisted I sit on their mat with them. Ravens circled above us cawing wildly. Helicopters zoomed toward the historic district. Feeling the urge to do my duty as a photographer, I began to stand.

“Stay here. We are safe here,” a man kept saying. So I stayed—reluctantly. I checked my phone. There was no signal, but I put a couple “I’m okay” messages in my outbox. If the signal came through they’d send automatically—I hoped soon.

About an hour had passed since the quake. A short Nepalese man in a baseball cap hurried into the lot with a sobbing Chinese woman. “Anyone speak Chinese?” He asked, desperately. “We need someone speak Chinese and English!” Three Chinese ran to help the woman as the man guided her closer. 

I couldn’t understand her, but the bloodstains on her dress spoke. Between racking sobs, she explained that a building collapsed on her brother. Her sister was missing. A Chinese woman translated. The man who’d brought her pulled me aside and leaned close, “I see her brother in the bricks. His leg broken. Bruises all on his body. Blood on his clothes. I check to see if he alive.” He frowned and shook his head. “He gone.” He looked me in the eye, leaned in closer and whispered, “Durbar Square gone. The temples fall. Our heritage…” He paused. “Gone.” He looked to the ground.

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Suddenly there was commotion. A woman raised a smartphone in the air speaking in Chinese. When she got close enough for me to see the screen, there were only numbers, but I understood right away. Seismologists released a measurement. The news had made its way around the world. The woman had typed ‘7.8’ on her phone and held it up so people of all languages could understand.

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I had to see what happened to the city so I slipped out, ran through the maze of narrow dirt streets. When they opened to the main road I saw the scene of an exodus. Thousands of people walked along Kanti Path, a main street running through the city. Piles of rubble and bricks, once the front walls of homes, had cascaded into the street below. The collapse left second-story rooms exposed. On the sky blue wall of one room still hung an orange picture of the Hindu god Krishna. The desk that had been against the fallen wall looked untouched.

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I followed the crowd to a pedestrian bridge crossing over the street. I climbed up for a view. People flowed through the street as far as I could see. Trucks raced up the street. Ahead in a large grassy area, like a fairground, helicopters landed and took off. Hundreds of people had gathered there. 

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Some carried dogs, bags of food, pillows and blankets. Others carried poles, tarps, rope and rubble. Many seemed to know exactly what they were doing. I continued through the crowd, snapping pictures. Further up the road a big brick building had collapsed onto a row of tiny shoe shops. Bricks buried nearly everything, even the shopkeepers. Yet the shoes remained on the shelves. Men made a human chain and passed bricks, hand-to-hand, uncovering victims. They made two piles: one of bricks, another of dead bodies. Feet and legs stuck out from carpets and blankets bystanders used to cover the bodies. I took a photo, feeling a bit uneasy about it, and continued.

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Passersby relay bricks to a pile in the search for injured or dead people in the rubble of a fallen building in central Kathmandu, an hour after the April 25 earthquake.

Passersby relay bricks to a pile in the search for injured or dead people in the rubble of a fallen building in central Kathmandu, an hour after the April 25 Nepal earthquake

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Some buildings were completely destroyed.

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At least four bodies were pulled from this collapse

Police, medical and military vehicles raced through the street, sirens blaring and horns honking. Men hung out the windows waving and shouting for people to move out of the street. The flowing mass of pedestrians moved aside in unison, like a school of fish, to let them through. A few people narrowly avoided being hit.

Thousands take to the streets for safety away from buildings.

Thousands take to the streets for safety away from buildings.

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Further ahead, hundreds of people had gathered at an intersection. As I got closer I saw bandaged victims and an ambulance. People had cobbled together a makeshift trauma center in the street outside a hospital. White uniforms of nurses stood out among the crowd. Some victims sat in the street. Others lay on stretchers with IV drips running life support into their arms. Still others lay on the blacktop, completely still, covered by blankets. I walked on with another horrific scene in my mind.

Outside of the hospital, doctors, nurses and volunteers set up makeshift medical services.Outside of the hospital, doctors, nurses and volunteers set up makeshift medical services.

Bloody rags and used medical supplies.

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An injured man sits near the hospital after receiving medical treatment.

At the next corner I found myself in a bottlenecked walkway near another bridge-crosswalk. The crowd was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, baby-stepping forward as one unit. Around the corner a Nepalese officer swung a bamboo stick at the crowd, controlling them like a herd of cattle. He hit those next to me in the head. I pushed through the crowd to get to the nearest open space. Before I could, a small aftershock sent the masses into a panicked stampede. 

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People screamed and tried to get away, to where I didn’t know, but there wasn’t room to move. The crowd lifted me to my toes as everyone moved in unison. I had no control over my body, no balance. Again, adrenaline. I feared I’d fall and be trampled or suffocate under a pile of panicking survivors. Somehow, I lucked out. Suddenly I was on the ground and had space to move. I got out of the chaos, my breath rasping in my chest.

I walked up the middle of Kanti Path for twenty minutes. There were less people the farther I went. At a roundabout near some collapsed monuments, police directed traffic. I stopped to gather my thoughts. It seemed like a few hours had passed since the quake, but I wasn’t sure. I looked at the photos I’d taken to get a better sense of time. In my camera I saw the story of survivors becoming rescuers, the story of instant resilience. Given the usual “destruction and sadness” news, I needed to share this facet of the story right away.

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As I turned around to return to the hotel, I felt a buzz on my leg. It was my phone vibrating. I pulled it from my pocket to see an influx of messages from Facebook, WhatsApp and email. The messages that had been in the outbox had finally sent. The signal was weak, but working.

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I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. My stomach growled. I raced back toward the hotel, exhausted, hungry and uneasy about going back to my third floor room. I passed the first mobile toilet truck I’d ever seen. Reeking urine from hundreds of survivors streamed out a pipe and into the street. It didn’t affect my appetite. I scanned for someplace to eat along Kanti Path. Nothing was open so I turned away into a narrow street. The smell of sweet, milky, Nepali tea came from somewhere nearby. My stomach growled louder at the scent. Not far ahead, steam rose from a group of locals gathered under an awning. A man and a boy were selling tea and loose cigarettes. I grabbed a tea and a cig and walked on.

A man looks over the damage to a Kathmandu school.

A man looks over the damage to a Kathmandu school.

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Back at Mum’s Home, the generator was running and the Internet worked. When I logged into Facebook, their new disaster check tool asked if I was okay. I clicked “yes” and broadcast my “marked as safe during the Nepal Earthquake” status. 

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More concerned messages from friends and family came in. Cynthia had messaged me. She was okay. She asked me to join her and a French couple to look for someplace to eat together. I quickly uploaded a few of the photos to CNN iReport, then went to meet them at their hostel.

Cynthia and her friends had their backpacks packed and ready to go, but unsure where. We needed food and safe shelter. A long crack in the wall ran across the length of the room between the top and bottom bunk beds. “Yeah, look at that.” Cynthia said. “We agreed the building isn’t safe.” One person’s bedding and luggage sat on a bunk untouched. “Who’s is that?” I asked.

“It’s the German girl’s. From dinner last night,” Cynthia said. The five of us had eaten together the night before the earthquake. “She said she was going to see temples and monuments a couple hours before the earthquake. She didn’t come back.” We were silent for a moment. We looked blankly at each other and wondered.

The sky outside grew dark, the air cool and moist. I convinced Cynthia and the French couple to come to my hotel where it seemed safer. Mum’s Home kitchen was mostly down, but they had rice and warm beer. Upstairs, we watched news coverage, enjoying our meal. It was unusual to see images of destroyed villages, avalanches, and wreckage on TV when it was just outside the door. It’s supposed to be in a land far, far away. My friends and family were seeing the same thing, but to them it was far, far away. According to news, the relief wasn’t going well because of the location and lack of resources—not to mention the danger of planes taking off and landing during aftershocks. We tried to be positive about Nepal’s plight and decided to volunteer the next day.   

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While making this Facebook comment, an aftershock hit

Later, I needed time to think. I went to my room to check messages and relax. I stretched out on the bed. I grew comfortable and a little calmer, but kept feeling vibrations. I couldn’t tell if they were aftershocks, my heartbeat or my imagination. What I’d seen and heard raced through my mind like a bad movie. Survival. Death. Thousands of people in the streets. A historic city in ruins. A hotel that might collapse as I slept. I wondered if I’d be better off outside. But it was cold. Rain was forecast. The city was dark and dangerous. Would sitting in the wet cold be better than hearing the ceiling creak above my bed? I wondered: was this the last sound I’d hear before the ceiling collapsed and the hotel became my tomb?

I don’t know how long I lay there ruminating. At some point the hum of the generator sputtered to a stop, taking the little safety lights with it. Now the room felt like a sensory deprivation chamber. It was pitch black and silent except for the periodic creaking sounds. I’m not afraid of the dark, but I was that night. I took deep breaths until fear gave way to exhaustion and I slept.

Throughout the night I woke to aftershocks accompanied by screams. All I could do was be thankful I was safe and wonder if I’d wake up that way – or wake up at all.  

Read day 2 of my Nepal Earthquake experience: helping in the Kanti Path refugee camp.

 

Comments

  1. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad feeling to read this. I think it’s a mix of both. It feels so good to be understood and to be able to share similar thoughts and feelings since we went through this together. But, it feels bad too because it reminds me how close I was, how close WE were from death and it brings back different pleasant and unpleasant feelings like being alive when thousands of people are not anymore or keep struggling.
    One year after, there is still so much to say, to share and to feel.
    Thank you for sharing your story Jesse ! It couldn’t be more real and truthful !

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  3. Jesse, I am glad I found this on the matu fb page. Good read, insane ordeal for you.
    I am on my way to Manta in Ecuador – where the quake happened two weeks ago. (I am petsitting so a family can go back home to Canada) I’m not afraid to go, but feel like I will be imposing – invading with a traveler instead of a humanitarian helping. I wish I could help in some way, but often what they need is just money, not help. — how did you handle the aftermath – to ensure you were useful, and not a nuisance?

  4. Fantastic, Jesse. I lived in Kathmandu a year before the earthquake, and was constantly scared of this happening. People were so blase about the risk. I live here again now, and there’s still fear, but less so because of the idea that ‘the big one’ has already happened. I’m not sure that that’s accurate, but it helps not to be constantly afraid. My Nepali boyfriend’s house, in Gorkha District, fell down, and he’s spent the last year getting it rebuilt. I wasn’t here during the earthquake, but your descriptions really resonated with me, and made me feel a lot of empathy for everyone who lived through it.

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