KATHMANDU, Nepal — They dug through rubble, looking for survivors but usually finding bodies. At night, they slept in open fields in the frigid night air. Food and clean water became rarities, uncertainty and fear constants.
On Sunday, Nepal began coming to terms with the death and devastation left by earthquakes and aftershocks. At least 2,430 people died in Nepal alone, and that number is sure to climb. Counting fatalities in India and China, more than 2,500 were killed.
The damage was everywhere. Stunned residents wandered the streets of Kathmandu, the capital city of 3 million people that’s now the focus of world disaster relief efforts. They dug through piles of rubble where their homes once stood, seeking pieces of their former lives and, possibly, family members. Many injured were treated outside overflowing hospitals, where crowds of people gathered looking for relatives.
One of the world’s most scenic spots became a panorama of devastation in minutes.
“The journey towards my family home in Sitapaila was a map of quake destruction, with many houses — old and new — torn apart,” wrote freelance journalist Sunir Pandey. “A high wall surrounding a monastery had collapsed and the nuns had run to a nearby field. A mud-and-brick cottage had fallen on a blue motorbike but no trace could be found of its rider. Everywhere, survivors gathered wherever they could find open space — fields, private compounds, empty roadside lots.”
At night, many Nepalis slept in the open, shivering in the frigid air of the Himalayan Mountains but at least safe from falling debris. One visitor decided not to.
“The entire city was under darkness,” Christina Berry of England wrote for CNN affiliate IBN. “There was not a single light anywhere. The power supply had been cut off. Our caring hotel manager gave us some food and some candles too. Me and Alexandra were so scared. We slept in the open verandah of the hotel fearing more quakes in the night.”
The city’s centuries-old buildings, which had stood stalwart for generations and provided a sense of national pride, have been toppled.
Dozens of bodies were pulled from Dharahara, the historic nine-story tower that came crashing down during the quake. A backhoe chipped away at the nub left protruding through its crumbled ruins.
When it seemed as if things couldn’t get worse, a powerful aftershock jolted Nepal on Sunday, sending people screaming into the streets and causing new injuries for already traumatized residents. Climbers said it set off fresh avalanches on Mount Everest, where at least 17 people were reported to have been killed on Saturday.
The magnitude of the new quake Sunday was initially estimated at 6.7 by the U.S. Geological Survey, considerably weaker than the 7.8 magnitude of the devastating one of a day earlier.
Cheers for a survivor
Only a few bright moments occurred in Kathmandu.
A clip on Nepal State Television showed uniformed soldiers frantically digging through rubble in a tight space and slowly extracting a man in a while shirt and a green belt. They slid the man onto a stretcher and carried him down a ladder to the street below where onlookers cheered.
Many other rescues were performed by regular citizens or tourists — people dressed in street clothes who lacked stretchers and other proper tools. In one scene, four men carried an injured man in their arms while a fifth man ran beside the group, fanning the man’s face with a magazine.
The death toll is expected to rise as the full extent of the damage emerges. It’s difficult to know how many people died in the rugged countryside that makes up most of Nepal.
In Nepal alone, the death toll has jumped to at least 2,430, Nepal Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said Sunday.
In neighboring India, the death toll has reached 56, most of them in Bihar state, said Lt. Gen. N.C. Marwah, a senior official of India’s National Disaster Management Authority. Also, 17 Chinese nationals died in Tibet, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua. These figures bring the overall death toll to more than 2,500.
The loss of life reported so far “is really based on the information we have from the main cities,” Lex Kassenberg, Nepal country director for CARE International, told CNN. “But if you look at the spread of the earthquake, a lot of the rural areas have been hit as well. The information we received from the field is that 80% of the houses in these rural areas have been destroyed.”
The mountains that define Nepal make it difficult to deliver relief, though international efforts are in full swing.
For instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Disaster Response Team, made up of 54 urban search and rescue specialists from Fairfax County, Virginia, and six K-9s, headed to Nepal on Sunday on a C-17 military transport plane. The dogs are trained to find signs of life in rubble after a disaster.
But the trip was expected to take about 24 hours. How long can a person survive trapped in building rubble after the original earthquake on Saturday?
Berry described the chaos on Saturday when the first quake struck as she sat in a Kathmandu hotel lobby.
“Suddenly the chairs started shaking. Somebody cried ‘earthquake, earthquake’. I tightly held the table to balance my body. Both the chair and table overturned and I fell on the floor. The weak wall of the reception area of my hotel had caved in. Some bricks also fell on my feet. Fortunately I was wearing very heavy boots and did not suffer any injury.”
Siobhan Heanue, a reporter with ABC News Australia, told CNN she was wandering around an ancient temple complex at the moment of the earthquake. Several temples collapsed around her, she said.
“It’s not too often you find yourself in a situation where you have to run for your life,” Heanue said, adding that she sought shelter under the table of a cafe. “It was utterly terrifying.”
Temples collapse around her
Heanue watched as residents picked through the rubble of a destroyed temple, turning up bodies.
“Unfortunately, that search was not fruitful,” Heanue said. “There were 12 bodies at least pulled from the rubble in the square. This was just one of several historical temple complexes severely affected by the earthquake.”
Dharahara was packed with people when it collapsed. Heanue said at least 50 bodies were pulled from its ruins.
The tower, built in 1832, provided visitors with a panoramic view of the Kathmandu Valley.
The epicenter of Saturday’s huge quake was less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, at a depth of 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), which is considered shallow and more damaging than a deeper quake. Sunday’s aftershock occurred closer to Mount Everest, 65 kilometers east of the city, at a depth of 10 kilometers, according to the USGS.
News out of remote areas near the quake’s epicenter, where many more may have died, has been scant. Most of the homes in the secluded Latang Valley have been destroyed, an official there said.
The quake Saturday was the strongest in the region in more than 80 years. A magnitude-8.1 earthquake centered near Mount Everest in 1934 killed more than 10,000 people.