Photographs by David Wood
You could feel the tectonic plates slip as the earth shifted. The sheer force of the earthquake was truly indescribable. It hit so quickly and with unimaginable power. It nearly knocked me to the ground. I looked back at the club house to see it swaying back and forth, reaching angles of at least 120 degrees. My stomach sank as I remembered my stepfather, Dave, had been looking inside. To my great relief, I watched as he maneuvered out unscathed. How it did not collapse on him, I don’t fully understand.
At the time of the earthquake, the second major one to hit Nepal in as many weeks, we were on a mission to deliver 40 tarps and other supplies to a small village in the area, which was in dire need since the first quake had virtually destroyed or damaged every home in the community.
I was told Sindhupalchok was potentially the worst hit area in Nepal from the first round of quakes on April 25 and it was the area that held the most casualties; I didn’t know what to expect to see.
On a bumpy three-hour drive, we passed what were once villages, but now just piles of bricks and stones. The homes completely destroyed, people did what they could to restore some normality back to their lives by cleaning up. Without heavy machinery, this seemed ineffective, and dangerous.
We stopped at the main town in the area close to our destination to pick up a great man named Ram Neupane. He directed us on the makeshift dirt road to his small village called Dhuskun, high above the river valley. At one point we had to get out and push the car, as it was stuck in mud, illustrating why aid groups are struggling to reach these places.
Upon arrival we were treated to a lunch of dhal bat, by Ram’s family. After, he gave us a tour of the village, showing us the ruined houses that were once the villagers' homes. The ones not completely destroyed were precarious, something I should have been more cautious of in retrospect.
We walked out to the fields, where a community house sat that looked relatively new, but nonetheless displayed cracked walls and patio, a consequence of the quake. While Dave and others took a look inside through the windows, I admired the view of the mountains and neighboring villages. After a good look, I began to slowly walk toward the building to check it out with Dave.
That's when it came out of nowhere with no warning whatsoever. One second I was admiring the view, the next in shock, moving for cover. Apart from uttering a few swear words, I was speechless. Screams came from neighboring villages as we stood in the fields, dumbstruck by the landslides everywhere around us.
I now understood why people could think God could be angry with them. The quake made us feel so insignificant. Compared to the power of the earth, we were nothing.
An old woman squatted next to me, close to tears, rocking back and forth, terrified. She breathed heavier than I’ve ever heard anyone breath before. I did my best to comfort her.
The most important thing at that point was to remain calm. Freaking out wouldn’t help anyone.
Thankfully, in order to save my mother back in Canada from an otherwise inevitable heart attack, Dave got out a text saying “We are safe," just before the service cut out.
What seemed like moments after the initial quake, a major 5.4 aftershock hit. Then smaller but unsettling aftershocks happened at least every minute or two. They seemed endless. The ground shifted back and forth, sounds like thunder echoing.
I’ve always thought in an event like this I’d be ready to run and look out for myself and others, but I could hardly even run. My legs shook so much from shock, it was surprisingly difficult to even walk.
The noise of the rock ripping from the mountain and tumbling down, combined with that of the aftershocks, sounded like bomb after bomb exploding. A small boy, who an old man in the village earlier described as “naughty," yelled and pointed to a nearby mountain. We all turned and watched as part of the mountain collapsed onto a home, crushing it. We waited helplessly, hoping we were safe from any landslides around us.
We stood high above the confluence of three enormous valleys. Across all the valleys landslides covered the slopes in a deep dark dust, as if from the smoke of forest fires.
A dust cloud obscured the entire valley where the major town called Barhabise was previously visible. Landslides covered the mountains. It felt apocalyptic.
The villagers listened to the radio over a phone and conveyed to us the news that we had been near the epicentre of a massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake. We would later discover it was actually 7.4.
We had originally planned to make it back to Kathmandu that night, but this was no longer a feasible option.
After the worst appeared to be over, the villagers discussed options in Nepali. They decided to go get the shelter we had been planning to hand out, and set up a place for everyone to stay, without telling us. Nepalis usually seem to do everything they can to try and make your life as a foreigner easier. As they set out to get the tarps without telling Dave and I, we realized their plan. We ran after them to help, telling them we couldn't possibly sit and let them do the work. We needed to work together.
Now understanding the full power and danger of the quakes, we had entered emergency mode. We took full precaution, pointing out hazards to each other, ensuring we always remained in safe areas. With zero warning from the last shock, we knew how vital it was to stay away from any buildings or possible landslide areas.
Moving quickly, we gathered some tarps and set up a shelter in the field where we had originally experienced the quake. As heavy monsoon rain seemed imminent, it was important to have shelter ready.
We were all seated under the shelter when a group of three women came running toward us. They were reduced to tears. They ran the entire way up from Barhabise, a roughly two hour walk from our spot. They frantically spoke to the other villagers in Nepali. Through a translator, they told Dave and I that everything in the town below us was destroyed and that many people had died. Among the citizens of the town, some aid workers had also reportedly died.
As we sat there, all I could think about was the village below us. Watching the women cry, I was close to tears myself.
Communications service was gone and we didn’t know how badly Kathmandu had been hit yet. Karma, and Ram’s wives and children had been to Kathmandu and there was still no word from them. Dave and I tried to comfort them as they worried. I repeated phrases like, “I’m sure they’re okay," not knowing if that was true or not.
Service finally returned to some phones and Karma managed to reach Sonam, his wife. Upon learning that she was okay, along with her children, Karma and Dave hugged in relief. Ram still hadn’t heard from his wife and daughter.
Neither Dave or I had service, so we could only hope friends and family knew we were okay from the small, but meaningful text he sent. Later that evening Dave was able to use a local phone and leave a more detailed message on my moms phone.
Karma tried to arrange for a helicopter to airlift us out, but they weren't cleared for take off from the airport yet. It was deemed to dangerous, since aftershocks still shook the earth and the government needed to formulate its rescue plan for the injured.
I was off balance the entire time. Even when aftershocks weren’t happening, it felt like the earth was shifting under me throughout the rest of the day. Eerily, I laughed to myself and joked that I was going crazy.
Just as we figured, the government seemed unprepared. The entire day we only saw a couple of helicopters, they appeared to be surveying. People were injured and in need of medical care in rural areas, but there was no help to be had. We were lucky to not have sustained any injuries in our group, so we couldn’t complain.
Fortunately, it didn’t rain and that night I sat and looked out at the beautiful view of the mountains trying to process what I had experienced. I began to understand how lucky I was. If the quake had happened anywhere from two minutes to two hours before, I could've easily been injured or dead. At that time, we had been touring the damaged and destroyed houses, as well as driving on roads that landslides now covered. Not all were as lucky.
I had been in the right place at the right time. It was as simple as that.
I knew I was in for a sleepless night. Aftershock after aftershock after aftershock: It seemed endless. Up until this point I hadn’t really been scared, but listening to the nonstop turmoil in the earth throughout the night did the trick.
The next morning, we got up early and Karma and Dave decided to drive out before any more major aftershocks could occur. Once we started down we quickly came onto rock slides and buildings that had collapsed across the dirt road. We cleared the way best we could, but reached one landslide that without heavy equipment could not be cleared. We made the decision to walk out to the town and either head over to the military base or to hire a jeep and driver.
Along the way we passed numerous boulders that were scattered further down the road, a constant reminder of the power the earthquake held.
We came across a small home with a group of people inside. One yelled to us, asking if we had medical supplies. We did indeed have a large medical kit with us, and went to to assess the problem. During the quake, bricks toppled onto a man, causing a large gash in his head and serious bruising to his neck.
I watched as Dave removed the toothpaste covering the wound to begin cleaning. The toothpaste was the only thing they had to close the wound before we happened by. The man winced as Dave cut away his hair and cleaned the wound, and looked to be in serious pain. It wasn't easy to watch. As Dave applied antibiotic ointment and a bandage, the man looked hopeless. Dave explained the importance of getting the man to a hospital for further treatment.
When we came in sight of the nearest town, we stopped and stared in awe at the complete and utter decimation. The town looked as if it had been war-ravaged. As we walked into the devastated community.
Enter town of Buildings that remained standing looked as if they were ready to topple over. We feared that if another quake struck we could be buried in the rubble, so we hurried through the streets.
It occurred to me that far more death could have been avoided if people were better educated on earthquakes. Even as I thought this, people slowly and casually walked under buildings that threatened to fall even without another earthquake.
A driver yelled out to me asking where we were headed. When I responded that Kathmandu was our destination, he told Karma he could take us there. His car was the last in the village. We were extraordinarily lucky to have gotten a ride.
We drove through the villages we had come by on the way to Dhuskun and saw that the buildings that had not previously collapsed now had. The destruction was even more thorough following the 7.4 magnitude earthquake.
Driving along a road scarred with large cracks we saw evidence of countless landslides that the Chinese forces had apparently cleared earlier that day. Room existed for only one car at a time to drive through in numerous areas.
No further earthquakes or aftershocks occurred on the way back and we avoided any landslides. Once we neared Kathmandu I felt far safer, despite seeing the new damage to the infrastructure from the last quake.
It's clear that from all the destruction to these rural towns and villages a long road ahead to recovery. Nepal is in dire need of international aid now and for the foreseeable future.
Please be generous, Nepal needs our help more than ever. Donate to these organizations who are doing work in underserved areas of Nepal:
Canada - kina.org
Canada - core-international.org
Nepal - thesmallworld.org
USA - edgeofseven.org