With its epicentre close to Gorkha in Central Nepal, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck on Apr. 26 has been responsible for the deaths of almost 9,000 people. According to the UN, another 6.6 million people live in districts affected by the disaster.
Many have been left homeless and the country is already reported to be running out of water and food. There are also frequent power cuts. One can only imagine how much the Nepalese have been suffering.
Film-maker Henri Phimasset and restaurant owner Kim Oanh were on holiday with their son when the earthquake struck. They saw buildings collapse in front of their eyes and count themselves lucky. Very lucky. It took them three days to get out of Kathmandu.
David Mann, Word’s staff editor based in Hanoi, had a different experience. The earthquake struck before he and his partner flew into Kathmandu. For some reason, the airline decided not to tell them. They, too, got stuck.
Here are their stories.
Henri and Kim Oanh
Henri, Kim Oanh and their son Duy were in Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square when the earthquake struck. A UNESCO-listed heritage site, many of the buildings collapsed. They were fortunate. Theirs didn’t.
“We were in a small restaurant,” says Henri. “We were lucky because my wife and my son Duy wanted to have local food. So we went to the cheapest restaurant. The building didn’t go down and we were okay.
“When it starts to shake, there is nothing you can do. It’s like something is moving yourself backwards and forwards, 10cm to each side.
“And then, suddenly, we just saw buildings collapsing.”
“Boom, boom,” chimes in Kim Oanh, making gestures with her hands. “And people were shouting.”
“We managed to get outside and people were shouting. They were looking for their kids, their friends. Foreigners were hugging each other and trying to be safe.
“The Nepalese came from other areas nearby to stand with us. They’re used to the shaking, and when this happens they always go to areas where there’s space around them, because there’s no risk of buildings collapsing on them.
“All the communication had shut down and we couldn’t contact our driver. We were supposed to be catching a flight. We couldn’t contact anyone.”
Kim Oanh starts showing me pictures. At 11.39 she took photos of where they were eating. Opposite the restaurant was a temple, and in the temple, leaning out the window, was a boy with a pigeon on his shoulder. She took a picture of the boy.
It was right before the earthquake and they had just finished lunch. She had gone out onto the restaurant’s balcony.
“I saw some foreigners, some tourists walking around the stupas, taking photos, and then all of sudden, bang. The first earthquake. It lasted five seconds. The second earthquake was the first big one. It lasted 10 seconds. Two stupas went down. Then came the third earthquake, another big shake. One more stupa crashed to the ground.
“While the buildings collapsed, we just couldn’t move.”
She then shows me a film. Once again her hands are unsteady as she runs me through it. In the film the ground starts to shake again. And in another video she shows me, you can hear the panic in her voice as she searches for her husband, Henri.
“We were so lucky,” she says. “We were so lucky. I remember saying to myself, please don’t shake again.”
Fortune was on their side. The family found their guide and they went to the car. They drove to the airport, but had to stop twice because of the shaking.
“When we arrived, all the flights were cancelled,” continues Kim Oanh. “It was a big mess. So we had to decide whether we should go back into Katmandu to a hotel or move to a new place. But to go somewhere else would have been six hours by car. We didn’t know what it was going to be like on the street or what had happened with the bridges. So we decided to return to a hotel in Katmandu.”
By chance they managed to find a good hotel that had been designed to withstand earthquakes. They stayed there for three nights.
“The first night was extremely scary because no-one dared to sleep in their room,” says Kim Oanh. “The hotel lobby was like a refugee camp. People from all around the world brought down their pillows and blankets and all slept together.
“But every night there were still some aftershocks. The first two nights we woke up in the middle of the night because people started screaming — it had been shaking again. But we just decided that we needed to get a flight as soon as possible because our son just needed to be home.”
On the third day after phone calls back to Vietnam, they were able to get on a plane to Guangzhou.
Says Henri: “It was amazing, as the aircraft lifted off there was this universal sigh of relief from all the passengers. Nobody had actually believed we were going to leave. Within 10 minutes, everyone on board had fallen asleep. We were exhausted.”
Adds Kim Oanh: “Now we’re back I’m still shaking. I haven’t slept well all week and I’ve lost my appetite.”
It’s 8.10pm in Guangzhou and we’re wondering why our flight to Kathmandu hasn’t left. Then, almost on cue, the gate sign flashes an update: “Delay due to ‘OTHER REASON’”. Everyone looks around, confused. The airline staff tell me there’s been an earthquake so the plane is leaving late. There’s no Wi-Fi and no-one knows anything.
Nine hours later, and we are still none the wiser as we exit the airport. A cool breeze whips across our faces as we turn a corner and see thousands upon thousands of people camped outside the airport’s entrances.
What the hell is going on?
Tired and confused, we hail a taxi. As we journey to the hotel, the driver carefully navigates around swathes of people huddling in the middle of the roads. Through darkness we spot the occasional collapsed building or damaged wall.
“A 7.9 earthquake. People are very scared,” our taxi driver tells us. “No-one has gone back into their house. So many people have died.” The death toll is estimated at 2,300, but that figure would tragically skyrocket in coming days.
At the hotel, there’s no power and guests are asleep in the lobby. We manage to connect to nearby Wi-Fi and our phones soon start pinging with messages from worried loved ones. The magnitude of the situation hits home and we agree to leave Nepal as soon as possible.
The sound of breaking glass rouses us from our sleep at 5.30am. The light shade is rattling above the bed. Almost as soon as I realise what’s happening, the aftershock is over. With the sun rising, we can see that the building opposite ours has been reduced to rubble.
We head to the airport where thousands of frantic people are trying to push their way into the terminal, desperate to buy a ticket on one of the few international flights that haven’t been cancelled. Armed guards try to maintain control.
Exhausted, hungry and without a ticket, we soon give up on getting inside the terminal. Another weary traveller explains that the few flights leaving are booked out for three days. A Dutch girl warns us that the 72 hours after the quake is the “danger zone”.
Eventually we find an empty China Southern Airlines office on the fourth floor of an old airport building. We decide to camp out until a staff member turns up. Other angry passengers from our arrival flight soon join us, with us all wondering how an airline could ethically fly its passengers into a disaster zone without a word of warning?
After an hour or so, we hear a familiar rumble and the ground begins to shake violently. People start screaming and scrambling under tables. We grab each other and stand under the nearest doorway. It stops after 40 seconds and everyone starts running down the stairs, certain the building is about to collapse.
Our trekking guide in Pokhara is soon in touch and tells us that everything is fine there. Unable to secure a flight that would leave within the 72-hour buffer zone, we decide the best thing we can do is head for Pokhara by car.
As we drive through the outskirts of Kathmandu that we come face-to-face with the true impact of the devastation. Relief workers pull bodies from crushed buildings, people crowd open spaces in small tents and thousands are scrambling to board buses leaving the city.
The pattern of destruction is erratic. There are long stretches with no damage. Then all at once you see dozens of buildings leaning on each other like dominos. Occasionally there are enormous mounds of rubble.
Heading to Pokhara was the right decision. It was largely unaffected and life was resuming as normal. We changed our trek to somewhere untouched by the quake and met people who told us the devastating impact the earthquake would have on their livelihoods, in addition to the tragic human cost.
Nepal is a beautiful country with incredible people: easily one of the most magnificent places I’ve travelled to. I hope to return someday soon and would encourage others to visit, when it becomes safe to do so.
More importantly, I would encourage people to donate much-needed funds to the relief efforts.
If you’d like to help the relief efforts, consider donating to Plan Nepal. Active in Nepal since 1978, they work to support child rights and end child poverty. They’re currently setting up at least 100 temporary schools, helping 12,000 children regain some stability in their lives — donate at plan-international.org