Cork-based oncologist Aileen Flavin describes the moment the earthquake struck in Nepal, and the chaos that ensued as locals and tourists alike struggled to survive in the aftermath of the disaster.
I was one of five cancer specialists in Kathmandu lecturing on a course, ‘Implementing Modern Radiotherapy in Nepal’, when the earthquake struck. I have been involved in teaching the residents in radiation oncology in Nepal since 2009 and this was my fifth trip. Radiotherapy is very basic in Nepal, with most people, if they can afford it, travelling to India for modern treatment.
The course was held on the top floor of the Yellow Pagoda Hotel. Day one had gone very well, with lots of discussion and interaction, and we had a social event with Nepalese colleagues booked in the hotel that evening.
We were coming to the end of the morning sessions on day two when suddenly the floor lurched and we were thrown to the ground, furniture falling all over the place. The room rocked crazily as we lay on the floor. I definitely felt that this was it, there was no way out. You could not imagine a building withstanding this. One of my UK colleagues asked me if it was a bomb and I said: “No, it’s an earthquake.”
I’m not sure how I was so knowledgeable, never having experienced either! It did cross my mind that the building might be spontaneously collapsing. Some building work had been going on the previous day and we had accessed the lecture hall via a sheet of corrugated steel supported by scaffold.
I felt a huge need to make an attempt to get out, as did one of my colleagues, who had more presence of mind and shouted at everyone to get out. Everything was still moving but less so and it seemed that, as the hotel hadn’t collapsed, we were in with a chance.
When we got out it, was clear that it was an earthquake, as the road was thronged with people from surrounding buildings. We felt very lucky to have got out, although the hotel was clearly built to withstand an earthquake and my doubts about the building were unfounded.
One of my UK colleagues managed to contact her husband by mobile to let him know what had happened and he contacted all of our families to let them know we were OK, which was a great relief to us all, especially later when we realised the enormity of the situation. Our Nepalese colleagues looked very worried. None of them had experienced an earthquake either and they were frantically trying to contact their own families.
They urged us to stay in an open area away from high buildings and electric pylons so we walked up to the nearest intersection. Here we joined hundreds of others — both locals and tourists. In the time before the first aftershock, I saw just one ambulance and one fire brigade pass, so the initial response to this event was less than that of a small road traffic accident in Cork. When the first aftershock came, we found ourselves linking arms in a circle with a Spanish couple who had been at the International Tattooing Conference at the Yak and Yeti Hotel — lots of people around with tattoos. This aftershock seemed like nothing in comparison with the initial earthquake.
When this was over, we wondered what we should do next. We didn’t have a clue, but we all felt the need to have a plan.
We decided to try to return to the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel, where we were staying. The first route was blocked by a fallen pylon and collapsed walls so we took a detour. The roads were full of people and every bit of open space was full.
When we got back to the guesthouse, we stayed there in the open until it was felt safe to go inside. Three hours after the quake, when it was safe to enter the building, we were reunited with the fifth member of our group, who was in an inner courtyard. The guesthouse staff were fantastic, despite the fact they were clearly upset themselves. The owner’s son told us that food and water would become a problem and told us to go outside when safe and buy food. All the shops were closed and remained so. Over the next two days the guesthouse provided us with a rice and vegetable mixture and water regularly.
The old part of the guesthouse, which wasn’t earthquake-proof, had been badly damaged. Internet and TV were still working intermittently until early on Sunday, April 26, so we could watch the enormity of the event unfold. We got to see the BBC World Service; the estimated death toll at that point was 400.
During that night, many people slept outside, some because their rooms had been damaged and were unsafe, others because they hadn’t been staying in the guesthouse but just felt they would be safe there. I met people who slept outside as they were on the higher floors and were afraid to go back there. We bunked together and gave up our rooms. Although we had beds, we were up during that first night because of aftershocks. These didn’t seem too bad and the impression was that they were lessening.
We later met a Canadian student who had developed mountain sickness while trekking, then a brain clot. She had been in intensive care in one of the local hospitals when the earthquake struck. She initially thought she was having a seizure, as she had been told this was a possibility. She had got out only to see all the trauma of earthquake victims.
I spoke to the guesthouse receptionist on the Sunday evening, explaining we were hoping to leave next day. We couldn’t pay our bill as we had no cash, and ATMs and visa machines were not working. He simply said: “You are our guest. We trust you to pay later.” He helped us to get a taxi for the next day and, to my surprise, we did get a flight.
Those of us who were in Nepal at the time of earthquake are desperate to help in some way. It seems that it is best to support the NGOs that are already in Nepal and have local knowledge. I am supporting both the Nepal Trust and Tearfund Ireland.
I would encourage all readers to support poor Nepal in the coming days.
Aileen Flavin is a consultant radiation oncologist at Cork University Hospital
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