Thunder from the Earth

This article was contributed to The Storyteller Project by American filmmaker & director Hamilton Pevec.

April 27, 2015

Pokhara Nepal           Shake! Rattle! Collapse!

On April 25th 2015, I was with Lakpa, one of the two men who paraglided off Everest and then co-starred in the documentary, “Hanuman Airlines”. We were sitting in the Himalayan Encounters garden in Pokhara 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 ten seconds it still didn’t stop and my first thought was to turn my camera on. A hundred barking dogs, cows mooing, and the distant screams of girls carried over the rumbling of the earth, adding to the cacophony unfolding.  My second thought was, “It’s not stopping!”

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” he clarified. 

After about a minute and a half the shaking slowly subsided.  The giddy relief chuckling began. I tried to call my wife Devika, I tried again and again. The signal would not connect our phones. A sinking feeling in my gut overtook me and I had to point my camera at something to distract myself from the 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, Durbar Square and piles of dead bodies, some half buried in rubble. 

Pokhara saw no damage compared to Kathmandu, and we all breathed relief… and then held our breath as the reality and scale 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. Lakpa jumped up and ran outside. 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. 

I called Devika again, but still no service, the stone in my stomach was getting larger. I watched and filmed as other people started getting through and speaking to their families. The 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 epicenter, entire villages leveled, roads closed by landslides and many hundreds of people killed and injured.  

The news was telling everyone to stay outside, to not 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 earthquake.

I finally got through to Shyam who had spoken to Devika and she was alright. 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 felt by all was tangible, the excitement and fear was palpable.  We were all experiencing a heightened sense of awareness and it was kind of amazing. 

April 26th 2015. I was in the kitchen when the 6.8 earthquake hit around 11:30AM. Pema, Shyam’s wife, shouted something in Nepali and everyone got moving. The street quickly filled up with scared looking people. This one lasted about 30-40 seconds. 

I was filming when Lakpa came running up to us and said that the news issued another warning that in 45 minutes another big earthquake will hit. I didn’t know how they could know this kind of stuff but there was 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 were already full of people, the 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, 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. 20 minutes past due, I started to relax, and suddenly 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 finding this 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 Pokhara hospital to Gorkha, moving the 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 a plane to KTM to evacuate the Indians.

April 27th 2015

The latest news of the death toll is over 2,700 killed and 5000 injured. I’m sure that number will steadily rise as we reach the end of our 72-hour earthquake danger zone. In the paper this morning we see the world heritage site Pashupatinath, is overloaded 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 event 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 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 will prepare to go into the affected areas. I will take my camera equipment and try to document some of the stories. 

Evacuees from the earthquake epicentre in Gorkha, flown into Pokhara at the Gandaki hospital. They will be housed in community homes set up by local community groups. Image Copyright Hamilton Pevec & Fauxreell Films 2015.

Evacuees from the earthquake epicentre in Gorkha, flown into Pokhara at the Gandaki hospital April 27. They will be housed in community homes set up by local community groups.
Image Copyright Hamilton Pevec & Fauxreel Films 2015.

Hamilton Pevec is a former Carbondale resident currently residing in Nepal with his Nepalese wife Devika. If there are people who wish to donate to help provide tents, blankets and community kitchens to villagers give Hamilton’s mom a call, Illène Pevec, 274-1622.

 

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