Epicentre - part one

Working in a post earthquake zone here, I have gotten increasingly used to the periodic tremors that are common after the upheaval of a major seismic event as the layers of land settle and stabilise.

Working in a post earthquake zone here, I have gotten increasingly used to the periodic tremors that are common after the upheaval of a major seismic event as the layers of land settle and stabilise. When in the city or office I hardly notice them, they could be faint vibration of a large lorry driving past, or just my own clumsiness causing me to stumble as I walk. I usually rely on others to tell me that one has happened, or as in our hotel grounds, the startled calls of the birds as they rise shaken from the trees.

Out in the mountains though, where the air is stiller and the land somehow rawer I am more sensitive to them. A deep rumble both heard and felt passing right through your body and leaving a hush in it’s passing. Distant dust clouds signal where rocks have fallen. It’s easy to see why some cultures did and still do revere volcanoes as being the home of the gods. In the presence of the land itself stirring all around you, you are left feeling very awed and very very small indeed.

Tuesday was my scheduled day out on the Helicopter explo clinics, Christopher our air safety expert and Lalit, one of our softly spoken Nepali doctors my companions. KC is our pilot, Nepali born, with over 20 years experience flying in the Himalaya.

Helicopter explo Nepal MSF

Ready to go in the helicopter © MSF  

We have a slow start to the day – over an hour waiting at the domestic terminal of the airport before we can get to the helipad, and then various complex distance/weight/fuel discussions as it is my intention today to push further east than we have done already to try and find at least the beginning of a boundary where we can draw a line of the need of our reach.

To get as far as we have planned – almost to the western most edge of the Everest National Park – KC plans to drop a large quantity of fuel halfway en route to enable us to fly more efficiently and still return and continue more rapid assessments in that area. This finalized, we secure our kit in the helicopter, clamber aboard, squish in, strap down and are finally off the ground.

First stop is a village to drop the fuel. I kill two birds with one stone and pick a village we have never been to. While the pilot is offloading the jerry cans, Lalit and I clamber up some terraces and speak with the head man of the village to complete our rapid assessment too.

Good news here, some paths are reopening and the villagers are being proactive in stripping some of the tumbledown houses for the tin of their roofs to start making better and more weather proof shelters than the tarp and bamboo matting that they are currently using.

Some places still have an air of despondency and helplessness to them, where the collective psyche of the people is still so traumatised by the experience of the earthquake and loss of homes and community members that anything beyond day to day survival is beyond their scope to contemplate. These are the places where planning a days visit from Kamini our Mental Health officer will make the biggest difference, to help people come to terms with the impact of the earthquake.

Fuel dropped we fly on and up, to 3700m altitude and a small community near a trekking route. Again as in so many places, we are the first aid helicopter to have visited the place, although one of the local guides who regularly guides people up Everest was able to evacuate the several severely injured himself.

No pregnant women here, no sick children. I pick up some dressing donations and iodine to give to the guide so he is at least able to do some simple first aid and clean wounds should any further injuries be forthcoming. As I run back to the group from the helicopter my breath is coming in short pants in the thin air, and I am rudely reminded of just how unfit I am when it comes to scampering around at altitude compared to the residents here who are habitualised to it.

Once up in the air again I pin point our next target on the map – a small settlement that is sat at the confluence of two rivers. We head towards it, down narrow steep sided gorges, the blue glacier melt waters rushing headlong the same direction below us.

Hovering above the village we select a likely looking spot for a safe landing and KC begins to lower the heli down towards it, the downdraft from the blades creating large dust devils as we approach the terrace. Seconds away from touching down I see a small red clad child running hard and fast, too fast, not toward the helicopter as we have seen in other places but diagonally away from both us and the house nearest us which seems to have started pouring forth bricks from one of it’s already broken windows.

Horrified, I swiftly point this out to KC and thinking that it is the disturbance from the rotors he begins to pull back and up. Another movement the other side of the village catches my eye; frowning, I note the telltale dust of a landslide beginning and I point over to it at the exact moment that KC sees it too and exclaims loudly “Oh my God – it’s another earthquake!”

Faster than I would have thought possible, even in such a powerful machine, we are rising away from the fragmenting and collapsing houses beneath us and the vanishing red point that is the child in the red jumper who disappears behind a looming cloud of dust.

The mountain sides all around us are shrugging off rocks in their thousands, dust trails starting thin and high and getting menacingly bigger lower down. Higher and higher we swirl, climbing several hundred metres in only a few dizzying and disorientating turns, the pilot trying to stay out of the enormous dust clouds now being raised by the falling rocks on every side around us, the roar of the rotors and the startled staticy clamour of each others voices through my headset all I can hear.

I’m half breathless although I am strapped still; twisting and turning as much as possible in my seat straining to keep in view the two small settlements in our line of sight, praying that they too don’t get engulfed by the falling debris of the suddenly violently alive land around us.

After what seems like hours but is in reality only a few minutes we are circling above the burgeoning dust clouds and trying to work out what to do next. Much of me desperately wants to go back down now it has stopped, back to the villages we left below us, back to find that small red figure that was running with such ferocity away from their fracturing home and see if there are any casualties, anything we can do.

Watching the earthquake and landslide from the helicopter © Emma Pedley MSF Nepal

Watching the earthquake and landslide from the helicopter © Emma Pedley  

It’s not a choice that it’s possible for me to make though. Before flying with us, KC had dropped Anne with another mobile clinic team off at a larger village further west. God knows how they have fared on the ground. Our priority right now has to be to first make contact with our base, then get back to Kathmandu and leave KC free to retrieve that team as fast as possible.

We fly fast and straight for fifteen minutes to the village where we had made the fuel drop and land back onto a wide flat terrace, surrounded by wide eyed and scared villagers. The house directly in front of us, which was at least identifiable as a house this morning, albeit a badly damaged one, is now nothing more than a frank heap of rubble.

As I pace about impatiently waiting for the satellite phone to wake up so I can contact our base, the ground continues to shudder and grumble beneath my feet every few seconds and the distressed cries of the villagers all around us make it hard to hear over the poor line.

Eventually however I get through to our team in Kathmandu, let them know that we are safe and learn that everyone there is too. One more quick international call to leave a brief voicemail for my parents – I hope my voice sounds steady – and we are back in the air.

KC swoops low over some of the villages that we pass en route and although it’s hard to recognize and differentiate the villages from one another, there’s no mistaking that further damage has been done to the already ruined settlements and the coloured specks that are the inhabitants, milling about outside far from all buildings.

Kathmandu is in chaos when we arrive back – the airport runway is closed, the streets and open spaces full of people evacuated from the surrounding buildings and everywhere as we drive through the city there are people trying to contact loved ones on the jammed mobile network. Lalit, our doctor, paces worriedly until he finally gets through and learns that his wife and children are safe.

The MSF team back at the hotel has evacuated the office and set up a temporary base of operations in the shade of one of the trees. Other peoples’ energy is high as they swap stories of their experience of the quake. Extraordinarily no-one seem particularly scared or traumatized but then I suppose this job by it’s very nature attracts a very resilient sort of personality.

Makeshift control room after the second earthquake MSF Nepal

The makeshift outdoor operational base © Emma Pedley  

Yann our GPS genius already has a geological map available on the epicenter of this latest 7.4 quake. Peering over his shoulder I note that my team were less than 25 kilometres from it. I feel oddly detached and quiet. After all, I didn’t feel the earthquake – I just watched it all happen to other people from what was probably the safest place to be – up in the air.

I’m relieved to see that all my team are safe, but can’t stop thinking about the people who won’t be; the people who are trapped or injured or just totally and utterly isolated like the village we just flew away from. I wonder if this is akin to what they call survivors guilt.

No time to wallow however, before long I am back on the road with Sibylle my medical coordinator visiting some of the major hospitals in Kathmandu to offer supplies and support – both happily not necessary, but much appreciated nonetheless.

Still feeling strangely detached, sleep comes surprisingly easy to me that night – albeit disturbed by another strong tremor at two in the morning, and another at three. I have to be up early though, we have a helicopter booked again tomorrow.

Emma's referring to the second earthquake that happened on 12 May 2015. Part two of Epicentre will be published on Sunday.