There are times in our lives when we can hardly remember what happened. Our memory jumbles the sequence of events, and details are a blur. Then, there are times when things happen so fast, but your adrenaline kicks in to heighten your senses to the point that life seems to happen in slow motion. In those times, your memories are burned so clearly in your brain that you can replay them with exact vivid detail for the rest of your life. For us, living through the Nepal earthquake is one of those memories, where the entire day is forever seared in our minds in slow motion.
Writing this now, I can vividly recall standing in our doorway on the first floor of our guesthouse in Kathmandu. We were holding each other with our backs against the doorframe, rocking back and forth. An Italian couple spilled out of their room unable to keep their feet under them as they shouted in fear. Kari told them to get in the doorway and talked to them to calm them down. Kari and I looked at each other. The looks on both of our faces could only be described as the purest expression of “oh shit”. Lots of people were confused, but being Californians, we knew exactly what was happening, and we knew it was worse than any earthquake we’d ever felt…exponentially worse.
Life was about to get real
It was just before noon on April 25th, 2015. We had arrived in Kathmandu late at night on the 23rd, then spent the 24th wandering the lively city. We shared beers at a rooftop cafe as we watched the sunset over Durbar Square. I remember watching the chaos weaving around ancient brick buildings and down crowded narrow streets. I said to Kari, “I would not want to be here during an earthquake.”
Cue to less than 18 hours later and I’m holding my wife, as we slam against our guesthouse doorframe. I saw a man running, only to be launched by the rolling earth. I heard a loud crash. BOOM! Nothing but dust. An 8 foot brick wall came crashing down, engulfing cars and motorcycles, mere inches from where the man had just landed. I remember the sounds of destruction giving way to an eerie silence. That silence was quickly overtaken by blood curdling screams as people sprinted by.
Are we ok?
The shaking had stopped, but the madness was just beginning. Kari looked at me with terror in her eyes and calm on her face, “e-mail our parents and tell them we’re alright – NOW!” I fired off this email to our loved ones thousands of miles away:
“Big Earthquake here. We are fine. Things are fine. Just wanted to let you know we are ok.”
Kari grabbed her camera, and we headed out. We had to walk across a sea of bricks that, mere moments earlier, was a wall. We didn’t know what to do, our only goal was to make our way to an open area away from anything that could come down on us. The street was pure pandemonium. No one, not a single person in the whole country was inside at this moment. Tourists, shopkeepers, construction workers…everyone was either heading for an open space or trying to reach friends or loved ones. Vehicles were left abandoned in the middle of the street. Telephone poles had toppled on top of cars. Over a million people were wandering the now crumbled streets, not knowing where to go or what to do. It was like a scene from a sci-fi blockbuster about the end of the world – and we were living it.
It was hectic and chaotic. Being in an open space along with the mass of people was weirdly comforting. A bit of calm. An exhale. We were some of the lucky ones. We were OK. Then the earth shook again. This time, less than 30 minutes later, a magnitude of 5.5. Screams, tears, panic, complete meltdowns, running, shoving – this is when it went from “we’ll be OK”, to “none of us are safe”. 8 minutes later, an even bigger aftershock of 6.6. We were living a nightmare.
Move or Be Moved
The uneasy feeling that nowhere was safe overcame us. It felt better to be on the move than to stay in one place. We started walking with no set destination, just to be moving. Seeing the chaos with our own eyes still didn’t allow our brains to process just how bad the situation was. We had no information. We had no clue about the magnitude of the earthquake or how much damage was done…or how many people were killed. All we knew is what unveiled itself to us as we made our way through the city.
We began walking down Kanti Path, a fairly major thoroughfare. Block after block the ruin and turmoil unfolded before us. The streets and sidewalks were jammed full of people. Nepalis raced around in search of loved ones. Entire buildings had collapsed. People were crying. People were injured. Massive gashes, broken bones, dislocations, you name it, we saw it. Everyone was suffering from shock. We were all confused, but even more scared.
We came upon a small coffee shop that miraculously had power, and decided to stock up on food and water while it was available. And, as if it was some magic oasis, this place had wifi. Slow, but working wifi. It’s weird how when you have nothing tangible to hold on to for protection, information somehow becomes the best security blanket for your soul. There it was on CNN.com. A 7.8 earthquake shook Nepal for what is now the longest 50 seconds of my life. They were requesting images, so we sent them some pictures and our contact information, hoping this might help spread the word and let loved ones know we were alright. While the coffee shop seemed like a safe haven, we were uneasy indoors. We had to keep moving, so we left the coffee shop slightly more informed, but no less secure.
The reality is worse than one can imagine
Continuing down the street, we found people digging through piles of rubble, hoping to unearth loved ones. It was hard to know when to help and when to keep moving. Nothing was sturdy, and we knew the earth would shake again. Police, Military, and a few samaritans were trying to clear the streets for the few ambulances that were racing down the street carrying victims to Kathmandu’s Bir Hospital. As we approached, we saw dead bodies lying on the ground. The seriousness of the situation was starting to sink in, yet it still felt like a bad nightmare that we would eventually awaken from. Nurses and doctors worked in the filthy streets, using rudimentary supplies pulled from cardboard boxes. Medical staff did their best tending to the victims, but they were severely outnumbered. We wanted to help, but we’d just be in the way.
The streets and sidewalks were buzzing. Ratna Park, across from the hospital, was filling with people. It was now a triage area for patients with less severe wounds. Men carried their injured friends into the grandstands. The already tended-to milled about with gauze wrapped around their wounds. We took a quick break in the refuge of the open park, but moving still felt better than sitting still.
Chancing alleyways, and ducking under downed telephone poles and power lines we made our way. We found ourselves staring at Dharahara Tower, a famous landmark we hadn’t seen on the previous day’s tour. It was a grim scene. The 203 foot high tower had come down, taking visitors of the site with it. Nepali military and local Kathmans were hustling, trying to safely adjust rubble in an attempt to unearth any possible survivors. It reeked of gas. It was clear it was not safe. Bodies were being pulled out. But no survivors.
Night was beginning to fall. We headed back the way we came. Where else could we go? We came upon the coffee shop from earlier and found a place at a small table. Everyone was trying to touch base with loved ones back home or gather information about the quake. Some other travelers told us that people were sleeping on the lawn of the vice president’s residence. The west coast was still asleep, but I was able to IM with my brother Adam, a television meteorologist in Toronto. Once he knew we were fine, he put me in touch with his news contacts. At this point, informing people seemed slightly productive. As we got up to leave the coffee shop, reports started to come in. At first it was a possible 1,500 dead. Within minutes, numbers grew to over 2,500 dead. This was worse than we could have possibly imagined.
We needed to find a place to sleep. Our guest house was intact. However, it was old and along side taller buildings. We couldn’t stay there. Sleeping outside seemed to be our obvious choice. That lawn of the Vice President’s house was looking pretty appealing, as it was close by and a large open space. We found room with some other travelers on the lawn. Our group shared some food, beer and cigarettes as we endured sporadic aftershocks. It was apparent that sleeping was the last thing any of us wanted. So we spent the night reliving the chaotic day. Everyone shared their story about where they were when it happened and how the rest of their day went, as if it would make it disappear from our past. In actuality, saying the words out loud helped us accept the reality of living though the Nepal earthquake.
A guy from Finland told us about how he had become so overwhelmed with fear immediately following the quake that he had his first ever panic attack. His hands went numb, he couldn’t talk, and he just started vomiting. He had calmed down at this point, but his Swedish travel mate had not. She was certain the ground was going to open up and swallow us if there was another big quake. There was nothing we could do or say to calm her fears. The local Nepalis sharing our camp area were clearly of the same mindset. As the night passed, more people arrived to find shelter or perhaps the exact opposite – a roof over their head was actually what everyone was fearing. Every last person, in a country of nearly 30 million people, was staying outside that night. The open sky was the safety blanket we all needed.
After a while I started to receive phone calls from some news sources. Clearly my brother had passed along my info. Kari was too emotional to answer any questions. But, for me, answering the reporters’ questions was therapeutic. My interview with CNN (link to the interview is below) turned out to be how many people we knew in the west heard about the quake. Friends and family have told me now that they woke up to hearing my voice on CNN. While they were worrying about us, a few said hearing my voice gave them comfort.
That night, Kari and I decided that fate had dealt us a hand that was much different than what we had planned. We could stay to help in whatever capacity we could, or we could leave, carry on with our travels, put Nepal behind us, and return to normalcy. As the sun rose on April 26th, 2015, the craziest day of our lives was officially over. That’s when we knew. For one reason or another, we were meant to be there. As long as we felt productive and safe, we would stay in Nepal and help.
See the footage from Rob’s April 25, 2015 interview with CNN about our experience living through the Nepal earthquake.
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