Ted Wendell, a volunteer photojournalist for Project HOPE was in Nepal on May 12th when a 7.3 aftershock shook Kathmandu, just two weeks after a major earthquake.
Mere minutes after submitting a blog post on the “excitement” of attending meetings to plan for earthquake response, I was shaken by the reality of my situation.
The first few seconds of and earthquake are confusing. The first thoughts of a passing truck are soon replaced by the expectation of a short aftershock. Within a few seconds I was very aware that what it was wasn’t that important….it was BIG. It was sound. It was violent movement. I had previously thought about how I would respond if another earthquake hit while I was volunteering in Nepal, and I immediately headed for the near-by door frame. Door frames may be over rated as a protected site during earthquakes, but for me, it was a place to hold on.
My next feeling was helplessness. Once I found the door frame, I was along for the ride. I didn’t know what to expect…how big…how long…what would stand…..what would fall. All I could do was ride along as the building moved. The movement was both back and forth, as well as up and down. This was very different from what I had experienced in California. There was a lot more disorienting movement and it seem to grow for a very long time. I recall thinking, “How much more violent can this thing get?”
The sounds I heard were screams of panic. People responding to the fear. The sound of the quake was not as loud as I expected. I was more aware of the sounds of the people around me and the crashing of things outside the nearby window. It turned out the crashing sounds came from a brick wall around the home next door collapsing down.
Frankly, the end of an earthquake isn’t exactly clear. Thirty seconds of violent shaking seemed to go on forever. I waited for a short period before I began to move, wondering if the quiet was some cruel intermission before some dramatic finish. I didn’t wait long. Being outside seemed far safer than being inside. My mind quickly flashed to all the collapsed buildings that the first quake took down just a few days before. Probably just as importantly, I needed to be with others.
The scene outside was strangely calm. People gathered in small crowds trying to evaluate the situation. Dust hung in the air. A few members of the Project HOPE team who weren’t working at the hospital immediately began to plan a response. A quick head count confirmed everyone was safe. It was clear to us that our safety was dependent on getting to an open space not surrounded by buildings or power lines. To get to a safe space, we very quickly moved down the canyon-like alley that leads to the main street in the Thamel section of Kathmandu.
The scene on the street was far different. We found thousands of people crowded into the middle of the street. For many minutes, the normal flow of scooters, taxis, buses and cars were blocked. Some people milled in small groups, but most were heading out away from the maze of alleys and buildings that make up that section of the city. Soon the flow of scooters mixed with the crowds as almost everyone began to leave.
As I fled from my room, I grabbed a camera. I don’t remember doing it but I was proud that the reflex was instinctual. On the street I began to capture images. The dust had mostly cleared. I focused on the crowds. People fleeing. I wanted to go into small streets just beyond, but it was far too dangerous. The Project HOPE team began to search for injured. There was an instant of panic as a flock of birds departed from a rooftop. Most of the crowd felt that signaled a coming aftershock. Fortunately, it didn’t.
After about thirty minutes on the streets, our thoughts turned to the members of our team at the hospital. A brief text message confirmed their safety and their plan to help evacuate patients at the facility.
The following hours were filled with hectic activity. Getting word to families and friends was a priority. Gathering supplies and putting together a plan for the Project HOPE’s team safety and getting ready to help the second wave of those injured in the second major earthquake in two weeks.
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