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Earthquake spares Pokhara, other areas not so lucky

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Nepal quake lasted about 90 seconds

By Hamilton Pevec

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POKHARA, Nepal — On April 25, 2015, I was with Lakpa, one of the two men who flew off Mount Everest and co-starred in the documentary “Hanuman Airlines.” We were sitting in the Himalayan Encounters garden in Pokhara, Nepal, talking about the next film we would make about his descent of the Ganges River to the sea by kayak.

Within a minute of sitting down the rumbling began, a thunder that seemed to come from the earth and all around. After 10 seconds it didn’t stop and I remembered to turn my camera on. A hundred barking dogs and cows moaning, the distant screams of girls carried over the rumbling of the earth added to the cacophony unfolding. My second thought was “It’s not stopping!”

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Everyone started on their cell phones to call loved ones, but nobody was getting through as the whole country tried to call at once. The shaking continued. I felt lucky to be in this garden, far enough away from tall buildings or anything else that might fall.

“This is safe place!” Lakpa declared. A couple of old fat men where drinking under the veranda. They didn’t move at all, as if it wasn’t worth getting up. I kept my camera trained on Lakpa as the shaking continued, all of us amazed about how long it was lasting. “This is a big one,” Lakpa exclaimed.  “First time,” he kept repeating, “so long one.”

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After about a minute and a half the shaking slowly subsided and giddy relief chuckling began. I tried to call my wife, Devika, who was elsewhere in Pokhara. I tried again and again. The signal would not connect our phones. The sinking gut feeling overtook me and I had to point my camera at something to distract myself from potential tragedy.

Out on the main road, motorcycles dodged the people running from their homes and shops. The police stood in a circle, doing nothing but talking like everyone else, heads bent down over their phones looking for a signal or news. Within a few minutes the pictures started coming in from Kathmandu. At first it was shots of cracked roads and collapsed houses. Then it was the white tower, Darbur Square, and piles of dead bodies, some half buried in rubble.

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Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, saw no damage compared to Kathmandu, located about 120 miles away. We all breathed sighs of relief and then held our breath as the reality of the devastation began to sink in. While the body count slowly rose, I continued to try to get through to my wife. I called her brother, Shyam. He told me that he still had not spoken to Devika. It had now been about 30 minutes since the earthquake stopped.

We decided to have some food. A little shaken but giddy, we ate Dhal bhat and speculated about the experience. Then Lakpa jumped up and ran outside as the aftershock hit. The screaming of dogs, cows and people rose again over the rumbling. It was over quickly. Everyone was out on the street.

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I called Devika again, but still no service. The stone in my guts was getting larger. I watched and filmed as other people started getting through on their cell phones and speaking to their families. Information spread rapidly. Some damage at Lakpa’s house in Lukla, a landslide on his property, a house fell on his Enfield motorcycle, but all his family was OK. Then the news from Gorkha, the earthquake’s epicenter: entire villages leveled, roads closed by landslides and many hundreds of people killed and injured.

The news outlets were telling everyone to stay outside and not to use your phone unless you have to. There was no emergency service in Pokhara, no announcements and it felt like there was no protocol for earthquakes. For the most part it looked like a regular day, not the result of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake.

I finally got through to Shyam who had spoken to Devika and she was all right. Knowing this, I was able to focus again. I thought about going to the areas where the damage was bad and documenting it. As the world turns its attention to the devastation, and the need for information rises, I am in the right place at the right time and I should not ignore this call.

That night we felt a few more shakes and again early in the morning. The high tension of the people was tangible, the excitement and fear was palpable.  We were all experiencing a heightened sense of awareness and it was kind of amazing.

April 26, 2015

I was in the kitchen when the 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit at around 11:30 a.m. Pema, Shyam’s wife, shouted something in Nepali and everyone got moving. The street quickly filled up with scared looking people. This earthquake lasted about 30-40 seconds.

I was filming when Lakpa came running up to us and said that the news outlets issued another warning that in 45 minutes another big earthquake will hit. I don’t know how they know this kind of stuff but there is no point risking it, so we piled into the van, drove around collecting family and friends and then couldn’t decide on the safest place to go.

Tick, tock.

The parks and open spaces of Pokhara were already full of people; shops were closing. Meanwhile there were still a few people and tourists walking around like the world wasn’t crumbling. We ended up back at Himalayan Encounters where they had now set up tents for people to sleep outside. There were young mothers holding babies, small children sleeping in the shade and the men huddled around the radio tuned to the news. The silent countdown unraveled in my head. The forecasted earthquake was 20 minutes past due. I started to relax and the fatigue hit me hard.

That night word was going around that you shouldn’t sleep inside. As I drove home, every open space was filled with people sheltering under ragged tarps and sheets of plastic. People huddled together for comfort and children found it all very exciting. The worried expressions of the adults were sobering enough for me.

From what I have heard there is one helicopter going back and forth from the Pokhara hospital to Gorkha, moving injured people, but the injured people don’t want to leave the hospital because they have no place to go and nothing to eat. There are two community groups moving people to communal housing and feeding them. Seven countries are mobilizing to send relief. The Indian government sent an airplane to Kathmandu to evacuate Indians.

April 27, 2015

The latest news of the death toll is over 2,700 killed and 5,000 injured. I’m sure that number will steadily rise as we reach the end of our 72-hour earthquake danger zone. In the newspaper this morning the World Heritage site of Pashupatinath is over-loaded with dead bodies. Pashupatinath is one of the holiest Hindu burning ghats, a very important place to be cremated. But now, there is not enough space, wood or time to burn all the bodies.

This is the fourth in a long line of unfortunate events to hit Nepal in the last year. First it was the cyclone storm in the Annapurna that killed 250 people. Second was a travel warning that China put out because the Nepali Congress was throwing chairs at each other. Third was the Turkish Airlines flight that went off the runway and closed the airport for four days. This earthquake marks the end of our tourist high season. Those who are not already in the country will probably not come and those who are still here and don’t want to help the relief effort will probably leave.

So now we have time to do something. There is an expression in Nepali “Ke garne.” It means  “What to do?” I feel this acutely. How can I actually help? This country is not prepared for any kind of disaster. The truth is, neither am I. Devika and I are now trying to figure out what the village people need, as most of the attention is going to Kathmandu and the village areas are being neglected. We will be collecting money from people who want to donate, with the plan to buy tents, blankets and equipment to set up community kitchens for the newly homeless.  

Today I went to the hospital to visit the people that were evacuated from Gorkha. I am now putting together a small news clip. Next, I prepare to go into the affected areas. I will take my camera equipment and try to document some of the stories.

Hamilton Pevec, 32, is a former Carbondale resident currently living in Nepal with his Nepalese wife Devika. People who want to donate to help provide tents, blankets and community kitchens to villagers can give Illène Pevec (Hamilton’s mom) a call at 274-1622.

Published in The Sopris Sun on April 30, 2015.


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