Nepal quake kills more than 1,800; Frantic search for survivors

Kathmandu: Nepal rescuers battled landslide debris and communication blackouts Sunday as they frantically searched for survivors of a huge quake that killed at least 1,800 people and unleashed a deadly avalanche at Everest base camp.

Residents of the devastated capital Kathmandu were woken by fresh aftershocks, with many forced to spend the night trying to sleep out on the streets and open ground in makeshift tents.

Offers of help poured in from governments around the world, with the United States and European Union announcing they were sending in disaster response teams. India was flying out its stranded citizens in military planes.

Home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP that 1,805 were reported dead, with at least 4,718 injured. But the overall toll was expected to be much higher, and at least 47 people have died in neighboring India.

“We are using all our resources for rescue and to help the displaced,” Rameshwor Dangal, who heads Nepal’s Himalayan nation’s National Disaster Management Division, told AFP.

Chinese state media said 17 people had also been killed in Tibet as Beijing sent a team of 62 rescuers, accompanied by sniffer dogs, to help the hard-pressed emergency workers in Nepal.

The county’s cell phone network was working only sporadically, while large parts of the capital were without electricity.

New aftershocks

AFP correspondents in Kathmandu reported that tremors were felt throughout the night, including one strong aftershock at dawn.

“It has been a sleepless night, how can we sleep? It has been shaking all night. We are just praying that this will end and we can return home,” said Nina Shrestha, a 34-year-old banker who spent the night with hundreds of people on open ground in the capital’s Tudhikhel district.

As rescuers sifted through the huge mounds of rubble, the hospitals were overflowing with victims who suffered multiple fractures and trauma.

“I must have brought over 35 people to the hospital yesterday,” rickshaw driver Dibesh Gautam told AFP. “I have been working since 5:30 in the morning. I am scared too, but we have to do what we can to help others.”

The 7.8 magnitude quake brought hundreds of buildings, including office blocks and a landmark nine-storey tower, crashing to the ground at around midday on Saturday.

Families grabbed whatever possessions they could muster and sought shelter on the streets, many of which had been split asunder.

Weather forecasters warned that rain was on the way, with dark clouds looming over Kathmandu that promised more misery for displaced survivors.

‘Huge’ Everest disaster

Snowfalls on Saturday had thwarted efforts to airlift survivors from an avalanche that buried part of Everest base camp, killing at least 10 people.

Hundreds of mountaineers have gathered at the start of the annual climbing season, which was cancelled last year after 16 sherpa guides were killed in what was the deadliest disaster in the mountain’s history.

Google executive Dan Fredinburg was the only climber killed to have been identified so far.

Lawrence You, director of privacy at Google, said Fredinburg was with three other Google employees, who all survived. He added that was contributing $1 million to the response efforts.

Experienced mountaineers said panic erupted at base camp, which has been “severely damaged”, while one described the avalanche as “huge”.

“Huge disaster. Helped searched and rescued victims through huge debris area. Many dead. Much more badly injured. More to die if not heli asap,” tweeted Romanian climber Alex Gavan from base camp.

Gyanendra Kumar Shrestha, an official in Nepal’s tourism department, told AFP: “We are trying to assess how many are injured. There might be over 1,000 people there right now, including foreign climbers and Nepalese supporting staff.”

AFP Nepal bureau chief Ammu Kannampilly, on an assignment to Everest together with a colleague, was among those caught up in the chaos.

“We are both ok… snowing here so no choppers coming,” she said in an SMS on an approach to base camp. “I hurt my hand — got it bandaged and told to keep it upright to stop the bleeding.”

Fears for isolated villages

The Red Cross (IFRC) said it was concerned about the fate of rural villages close to the epicenter of the quake northwest of the capital Kathmandu.

“Roads have been damaged or blocked by landslides and communication lines are down preventing us from reaching local Red Cross branches to get accurate information,” said IFRC Asia Pacific director Jagan Chapagain.

Kathmandu was severely damaged, and the historic nine-storey Dharahara tower, a major tourist attraction, was among the buildings brought down.

At least a dozen bodies were taken away from the ruins of the 19th-century tower, according to an AFP photographer who saw similar scenes of multiple casualties throughout the city.

Nepal and the rest of the Himalayas are particularly prone to earthquakes because of the collision of the Indian and Eurasia plates.

An 6.8 magnitude quake hit eastern Nepal in August 1988 killing 721 people, and a magnitude 8.1 quake killed 10,700 people in Nepal and eastern India in 1934.

Offers of support

A spokesman for Nepal’s home ministry said the government had released around $500 million as emergency funds for rescue operations.

India dispatched two military transport planes to help with the rescue and relief efforts and there were similar offers from around the region, including Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The US Agency for International Development said a disaster response team was being flown to Nepal and that the government had authorised an initial $1 million “to address immediate needs”.

Britain, Germany, Norway, Spain and Israel also pledged support and assistance, as international aid groups, including Action Against Hunger (ACF) and Christian Aid, mobilized funds and teams to send to Nepal.

Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy, in a telegram sent by his Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to the Nepalese Catholic authorities.