Sunday, April 26, 2015
The first night after the earthquake was long and sleep wasn’t easy to get. I remember one particularly alarming aftershock in the early hours of the morning that felt like a bomb going off. If you have ever lived near a train yard, you know the sound of trains being assembled and the reverberating sound when they connect one section of train cars into another by ramming them together. That’s what this was like, a sudden lurch, a sound like a bomb, and then silence as the sound echoed throughout the city of Kathmandu. Once again I had that sensation and realization that as far as I could imagine, the whole earth had jumped sideways! When it happened, all of the Nepalis jumped up and began talking loudly, in half panic. I remember someone speaking up above the noise, telling them to be calm, and they slowly settled back down again.
It seemed to me that daylight would never come again, and I couldn’t wait for that. I was tired, but laying around trying to sleep was driving me crazy. I was thankful when it finally did start to become light, and I was up and ready to go back to the guesthouse by 6:00 am. The aftershocks were slowly getting further apart, and decreasing in magnitude. That was a hopeful indication that the fault line was stabilizing again, though we had no real assurance of that at the time. Back at the guesthouse we went about assessing damage and collecting ourselves. I remember one younger worker simply wasn’t going to move back in, and moved a couple chairs outside to sleep on. The picture shows a smiling face, but she was serious. Throughout this ordeal one of the things that struck me about these Nepali Christians was how they could smile in even the worst of times.
Later when I compared the amount of lateral movement during the quake (3-4 meters) to the number of years the fault had been locked, multiplied by the distance the plates are moving per year, I estimated they were about the same distance. To me this indicated that the potential energy had been released – we should have no more large earthquakes here for a while. Precisely 80 years to be exact, in Nepal. This fault is the most regular and predicable on the planet! It erupts about every 80 years. In the coming weeks geologists would study the fault line and determine that only one section of it had released, which is a good news/bad news report. The good news is that if it had all gone at once it could have been a magnitude or two higher; the bad news is that western Nepal is still due for a similarly large earthquake.
Whenever the internet was up we would collect what information we could find on the earthquake and relief efforts. Someone bought a paper and we got some information from that. Eventually we heard a jet land at the airport, which gave me some hope that my flight at 11:15 pm might be able to make it in and back out. But as far as getting any real indication from someone… that wasn’t going to happen. Phones were working, but no one was answering in most cases. The US embassy wasn’t much help, nor was the airport itself. I was able to check in with Nora a little via internet but that was spotty. I knew her group was safe in Pokhara though. The bigger Concern was about aid flights getting in to Nepal. If KTM was shut down that would be a real problem because it’s the only international airport. It had been shut down for four days in March of 2015 when a Turkish jet ran off the runway and it took international support from India to get the airport reopened.
Reports began coming in about various buildings and shrines that had collapsed, mostly old ones. We saw pictures in the paper of some of them. I decided to walkabout and see what things were like near us. I saw many buildings that were partially destroyed, people living in the streets and some in buildings, but every time there was another aftershock they would jump up and move to the center of the road again. I found an open grocery mart and went inside. I came out with a 2-for-1 special on ice cream bars, and ate them both! Comfort food…?
People were gathered in open fields and tents.
At one point there was a large group in the middle of the street around an older woman who appeared to be unconscious. They didn’t look like they knew what they were doing so I circled around trying assess what was going – whether she was hurt or had merely fainted. In a moment an ambulance showed up, which amounted to a minivan with stickers on it, and two men grabbed her by the legs and shoulders and literally tossed her into the van! The ambulance then sped away. It would have been comedic under other circumstances.
A little further along another aftershock hit, and a building near me partially collapsed. I had my phone in hand and flipped on the video. Even though the shaking has just stopped, you can see things swinging. Everything moving in the clip below (trees, wires, birds) is because of the aftershock, there was no wind blowing. It gives you some idea of the amount of movement even an aftershock caused.
A moderate afteshock the day after.
By mid afternoon we had heard many planes land and take off, so I decided to go to the airport at 4:30 pm and wait there for my 11:15 pm flight. I had my doubts because we had heard that one of the problems was that with each aftershock the employees would run outside and refuse to come back inside. I said my good-byes, not knowing if I would be back later or get a flight out, walked my baggage a few blocks to Jawalakhel Chowk and flagged a taxi.
Everywhere we drove I saw people milling about in the streets. When we neared the airport, about a mile or less from it, I saw a line… hundreds, maybe two thousand people, literally lined up to get into the airport. They were wanting out of the country. At first I thought I was sunk, but I got dropped of inside the parking lot and went to the entrance where I saw military personnel on guard. They were checking to see if people had already purchased tickets, and if they had then they were allowed to go inside to the airline counters. Fortunately I had my ticket information with me and was allowed inside.
Once inside I joined several hundred others, all of us looking to check in at our airline. I couldn’t even find a China Southern counter. Everything seemed at a standstill. I resolved to wait and see what would happen, so I found a corner to hole up in, near what I thought would be a structurally sound area of the building that still offered an escape route. Some us us took turns watching each others baggage while we went out to look for our airline counters, use the bathroom, etc. Every so often I felt the ground shake. Eventually I noticed a tiny white piece of paper with my flight number on it (the display boards were mostly off all day). I hurried back to get my baggage, approached that counter. I was second in line, though most lines were very long! I checked my (overweight) bag, and got my boarding pass. I thought I had it made as I passed through the next military checkpoint at the foot of the stairway to the waiting area outside of security. They were only allowing people with boarding passed past that point.
Once in the waiting area I wanted to find internet so I could let people know of my progress but everything was closed. So I found a metal bench, interlaced my bags into my arms, and took a nap. It was still several hours before my flight and the room was almost empty, and was quiet – no crowds, like I had been fighting for the past hours! A couple hours later I woke up to a room full of (noisy) people! The waiting area had filled up, and about an hour before my flight a man called everyone on my flight to quickly line up at security. I joined the line and thought to myself that it was going much better than I had expected, and I was looking forward to going inside security where things would be better still. Not…
I went through security and rounded the corner to a long hallway that lead to the gates. Shock hit me when I saw an immense crowd of what I estimated at about 1000 people! It turned out that while they were pushing people through, very few flights were going our. Most places were wall-to-wall, all seats were occupied, even the open floor was crowded with people, sitting or laying on blankets and such. We had to force our way through just to get from gate to gate. I looked for my gate, but it wasn’t clear where it was because the gate numbers were all messed up. There was more than one Gate 1, etc…. I made several trips back and fourth, surveying the situation and finally decided I had found the right gate/area in the terminal. And I waited…
As 11:15 pm approached I began asking about the flight and received conflicting responses. I was told it was there, it was not there, it was coming – no one knew, it became obvious. At this point I was actually out on the tarmac with many others, all looking for our flights. Shuttle buses would come and go, and it was really hard to know if it was the right one until you got right to the door and an airline official would look at your ticket (and then send you away).
This went one for a couple hours, way past my flight’s scheduled time. At one point i got a little panicked myself and got in the face of an airport official, and made him understand what flight I was looking for. His response was to calmly pat the brick wall next to him, as if to say “just settle yourself down here and wait, it will be here.” At that point I changed my thinking, from one of an entitled traveler to one of a large group, all doing the best we could to make it work. So I sat…
About an hour later we were told our flight was not coming until about 8:00 am the next day. Well, at least I had some sort of answer. I went inside, found my very own piece of cardboard and laid down, joining many others on the cold, hard marble floor of the hallway coming in from security. At this point I had been there only nine hours. Surely tomorrow would be smoother.