The day of the Nepal earthquake
By Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman
Global Ministries Missionaries Mark Zimmerman and his wife Deirdre Zimmerman serving in Kathmandu, Nepal, share the moments leading up to the April 25 Nepal earthquake and the reality of the quake’s aftermath.
Mark serves as a medical doctor in Kathmandu, Nepal, as director of the Nick Simons Institute (NSI) and his wife Deirdre Zimmerman serves as an advisor to the Nutrition Promotion and Consultancy Services, through the Nutrition Project for Urban Communities, which works to enrich the lives of Nepalis with better nutrition through education and training.
April 30, 2015
“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” —Is. 54:10
It was a cooler-than-usual morning for April in Kathmandu, more like spring in Ireland with heavy clouds threatening rain and a gusty breeze bringing a nip to the air. As Mark opened his sermon at our local Nepali church, he made mention of how several friends in the congregation had donned jackets and windbreakers again that morning, after several weeks of warm temperatures. The congregation of 120 or so, seated in rows on the carpeted floor, chuckled. I was sitting back towards the door into the main room of the church, having arrived a little late for the service. My mind, a bit tired after a busy week, wandered over various tasks that needed organizing: a youth club meeting the next afternoon, a field trip for nutrition training the following weekend, birthday celebrations for both our boys in the month of May.
The Ichok government school in rubble. Photo courtesy of Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman
Mark was giving an illustration in his sermon that involved an escalator, and was struggling to explain these moving stairs to a congregation that had rarely encountered them. I suddenly felt a ripple beneath me, as if a snake was sliding through the concrete floor. Instant realization gripped me and, as the congregation collectively gasped, I pressed myself and Zachary down onto the floor, urging him desperately to cover his head with his hands. Standing on the dias, Mark took a couple of seconds longer to understand, wondering why someone had yelled out “earthquake” in response to his question about the Nepali word for “escalator”. He leapt down, joining a huddle of men, as the voices of the panicked congregation rose in prayer and pleas for God’s mercy. For over a minute, the entire room on the second floor of a four-story building bucked and heaved as if we were in a dinghy on a stormy sea. I can still feel the concrete slab floor rising up and down as the pillars swayed all around, and the terrible acute sense of waiting for the ceiling to start falling in chunks on our heads has my heart thumping again as I write this.
A view of the village of Gore. Photo courtesy of Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman
Finally, the heaving slowed and then stopped. Our heads still swimming, we slowly looked around as prayers continued to fall from many lips. A couple of single girls began to whimper, and I felt myself close to tears. I quickly looked for Benjamin who had been sitting further away with a friend; he seemed a little dazed, but nodded that he was okay. Stunned at the severity of the earthquake, and equally by the fact that we all seemed to be okay, it took a few moments to decide to leave the building and with amazing control the congregation moved down the stairs, collected theirs shoes and regrouped out on the street. There we joined crowds of people, all evacuated out of their homes, all in shock at what they had just experienced. We stood in groups, at a distance from any wall and well clear of overhanging electric lines. Individuals watched wires and hanging bells for any sign of further swaying. Amazingly, mobile phone networks remained functional and news quickly filtered in as people connected with loved ones. Clustered around a smart phone, we saw the first photos of an iconic nine-story tower in the city centre that was now reduced to huge pieces of rubble. News that many houses had collapsed in an older part of town shook those who had travelled from there to church, and the crowd seemed to become more dazed as the enormity of what had happened sank in further. Then a rumble, and suddenly a strong aftershock sent us all crouching down into the dust of the road again. A short while later, our congregation tried to muster more prayer and a hymn. But, it was difficult for folks to move beyond their acute shock and anxiety.
It was ninety minutes later before we felt safe enough to leave our church friends and attempt the cycle back to our home, 30 minutes away. Roads were empty of traffic, but lined with groups of people waiting, not sure what would happen next. In many places boundary walls had keeled over, spilling bricks and creeping vegetation out in front of immaculate middle-class homes, but we were amazed at how the buildings themselves were still standing remarkably unmarked. Arriving at our own lane, neighbors were sitting out in family groups in the street and our landlord’s extended family greeted us from garden chairs they’d gathered in the courtyard. Leaving the boys outside, we cautiously entered our apartment, wondering what awaited us. More amazement: no structural damage, most of our possessions intact and in place, a minor mess in the kitchen from a few broken bottles and some spilled water.
Population remains shaken
During the next 36 hours, frequent aftershocks kept us outside for much of the time. Some started as a low rumble before physically shaking; others occurred without warning as a loud bang and sudden, sharp jolt. As tiredness and tension built, it became difficult to differentiate true aftershocks from the swimming of our heads. Our boys constantly asked when and how bad the next aftershock would be and became quite agitated whenever Mark or I went indoors to collect anything. The vast majority of the city’s population set up camp under tarpaulins and plastic sheeting in the streets outside their homes and, three days later, remain there, too afraid to sleep indoors. However it is now clear that, after years of dire predictions, this city of two million perched on the edge of the tectonic plates that form the Himalayas has experienced a devastating earthquake, and in large part survived. Old crumbly housing in inner city areas was severely damaged with many deaths, and many historical buildings collapsed, but despite irregular and corrupt planning implementation, the vast majority of modern buildings remain standing. Total deaths in the city are only one percent of the previous predictions of 100,000 deaths. We await restoration of our electricity, water and internet services; numerous buildings need surveying for safety, and much of the city’s population remains very shaken. Nevertheless, we are profoundly grateful for how much we have been spared.
The earthquake that drove through the central hills of Nepal on Saturday April 25th, at 11:56 a.m., measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. It was followed by a separate earthquake measuring 6.9 just 24 hours later. The day and the time of the initial quake were significant. Schools and offices were closed. People had been up and out of their beds for some hours. Families were together. Significant numbers were outside doing chores or for leisure. Nevertheless, unlike in Kathmandu, the outcome in the surrounding rural districts was catastrophic.
Two days later, Mark made a reconnaissance trip to the district of Sindupalchowk at the suggestion of the Ministry of Health. Just three hours northwest of Kathmandu, 30 miles by a damaged but open road, it is probably the worst affected district. Perhaps just 10 percent of buildings here are constructed with concrete and pillars. The remaining 80-90 percent of traditional stone and mortar homes are devastated: walls caved in, upper floors collapsed, gable ends blown out. Livestock, food grains, family members are buried under great piles of rock; grocery stores, workshops, livelihoods all destroyed. Mass cremations are taking place where bodies have been recovered; in other places the stench of death emanates from collapsed houses. Families and community groups are gathered in open fields with little in the way of food or shelter. The weather is colder than normal with frequent heavy rain.
Wisdom and prayer needed
The emergency response is enormous and chaotic as huge amounts of aid and personnel arrive into the country. Our windows continue to tremble night and day, only now with the roar of foreign military transport planes arriving. Predictably, a government which struggles under the best of circumstances is now overwhelmed with both the need and the response, and much of the aid is log-jammed in Kathmandu. In Sindupalchowk, Mark observed local health care workers responding tremendously to deal with the many injured, with severe cases being ferried efficiently to Kathmandu for advanced treatment. Yet, little in the way of any aid has reached the tens of thousands of people huddled around their devastated homes and villages. Much wisdom and prayer is needed for the coming days, weeks and months as communities start to rebuild, that assistance will effectively and efficiently reach those most in need.
We thank you all for your many, many prayers and messages of concern and support. We again emphasize with appreciative hearts how little we have personally suffered in this terrible disaster. We ask you of course to continue to remember the people of the central hilly districts around us who have experienced so much loss and will need extensive support in the months ahead to recover.
Deirdre, Mark, Zachary and Benjamin
Gifts to support UMCOR’s response to the earthquake in Nepal and other disasters can be made online.