Rescuers dug with their bare hands and bodies piled up in Nepal on Sunday after an earthquake devastated the heavily crowded Kathmandu Valley, killing at least 1,900, and triggered a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.
Army officer Santosh Nepal and a group of rescuers worked all night to open a passage into a collapsed building in the capital Kathmandu. They had to use pick axes because bulldozers could not get through the ancient city’s narrow streets.
“We believe there are still people trapped inside,” he told Reuters, pointing at concrete debris and twisted reinforcement rods where a three-storey residential building once stood.
In Everest’s worst disaster, the bodies of 17 climbers were recovered from the mountain on Sunday after being caught in avalanches. A plane carrying the first 15 injured climbers landed in Kathmandu at around noon local time.
“There is a lot of confusion on the mountain. The toll will rise,” said Gelu Sherpa, one of the walking wounded among the first 15 injured climbers flown to Kathmandu. “Tents have been blown away,” said Sherpa, his head in bandages.
A strong aftershock on Sunday unleashed further avalanches in the Himalayas and shook buildings as far away as the Indian capital New Delhi, halting the city metro.
“Another one, we have an aftershock right now. Oh shit!” said Indian climber Arjun Vajpai over the phone from Makalu base camp near Everest. “Avalanche!” he shouted. Screams and the roar of crashing snow could be heard over the line as he spoke.
That aftershock, measured at 6.7, was the strongest since Saturday’s 7.9 quake – which was the strongest since Nepal’s worst earthquake disaster of 1934 that killed 8,500 people.
“Horrible here in Camp 1 – avalanches on 3 sides,” tweeted climber Daniel Mazur from an advance base on Everest.
The aftershock hit Nepal and the eastern part of the north Indian state of Bihar.
“There is no way one can forecast the intensity of aftershocks so people need to be alert for the next few days,” said L.S. Rathore, chief of India’s state-run weather office.
With Nepal’s government overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, India flew in medical supplies and relief crews, while China sent in a 60-strong emergency team. Relief agencies said hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley were overflowing and running out of medical supplies.
Among the capital’s landmarks destroyed in the earthquake was the 60-metre (200-foot) Dharahara Tower, built in 1832 for the queen of Nepal, with a viewing balcony that had been open to visitors for the last 10 years.
A jagged stump was all that was left of the lighthouse-like structure. As bodies were pulled from the ruins on Saturday, a policeman said up to 200 people had been trapped inside.
Bodies were still arriving on Sunday morning at one hospital in Kathmandu, where police officer Sudan Shreshtha said his team had brought 166 corpses overnight.
“I am tired and exhausted, but I have to work and have the strength,” Shreshtha told Reuters as an ambulance brought three more victims to the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital.
Bodies were heaped in a dark room, some covered with cloth, some not. A boy aged about seven had his face half missing and his stomach bloated like a football. The stench of death was overpowering.
Outside, a 30-year-old woman who had been widowed wailed: “Oh Lord, oh God, why did you take him alone? Take me along with him also.”
Save the Children’s Peter Olyle said hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley were running out of storage room for bodies and emergency supplies. “There is a need for a government decision on bringing in kits from the military,” he said from Kathmandu.
Some buildings in Kathmandu toppled like houses of cards, others leaned at precarious angles, and partial collapses exposed living rooms and furniture in place and belongings stacked on shelves.
Rescuers, some wearing face masks to keep out the dust from collapsed buildings, scrambled over mounds of splintered timber and broken bricks in the hope of finding survivors. Some used their bare hands to fill small white buckets with dirt and rock.
Thousands of people spent the night outside in chilly temperatures and patchy rain, too afraid to return to their damaged homes.
On Sunday, survivors wandered the streets clutching flimsy bed rolls and blankets, while others sat in the street cradling their children, surrounded by a few plastic bags of belongings.
The 7.9 magnitude quake struck at midday on Saturday at a busy time of year for the tourism-reliant country’s trekking and climbing season, with an estimated 300,000 foreign tourists in the country, home to many World Heritage sites.
Nepal’s police put the death toll at 1,910, with 4,625 hurt. At least 700 were killed in the capital, a city of about 1 million people where many homes are old, poorly built and packed close together.
Worst everest disaster
There was nearly 1,000 climbers and sherpas on Everest when the first avalanche struck, claiming the highest toll of any disaster on the world’s highest mountain.
Climber photographs on social media sites showed tents and other structures at Everest base camp flattened by rocks and snow. The first reported photo of the avalanche showed a monster “cloud-like” mass of snow and rock descending down the mountain.
Helicopters were able to fly in on Sunday morning as clouds lifted to evacuate the injured to a lower altitude, from where they were being flown to Kathmandu.
“All badly injured heli evacuated,” Romanian climber Alex Gavan tweeted from base camp. “Caring for those needing. Want sleep.”
Another 100 climbers higher up Everest at camps 1 and 2, were safe but their way back down the mountain was blocked by damage to the treacherous Khumbu icefalls, scene of an avalanche that killed 16 climbers last year. Helicopters had started to shuttle them to base camp, Gavan reported.
The main earthquake, centred 50 miles (80 km) east of the second city, Pokhara, was all the more destructive for being shallow.
Neighbouring India, where 49 people were reported killed in the quake and its aftershocks, sent military aircraft to Nepal with medical equipment and relief teams. It also said it had dispatched 285 members of its National Disaster Response Force.
In Tibet, the death toll climbed to 17, according to a tweet from China’s state news agency, Xinhua.
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