When a devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck the Himalayan nation of Nepal on April 25, killing nearly 9,000 people, at least three Cowichan Valley residents were there to experience it, and shared their experiences surrounding the event with the Cowichan Valley Citizen.
Filmmaker Nick Versteeg, teacher Taylor Winfrey and UN worker Anna Kosa were all in Nepal when the earthquake happened.
A fourth Valley resident, Susan Marshall, operates the Nepal Education Fund, and had returned from the country just a few days before the quake.
Versteeg had been in Nepal for a while already, filming the work of Marshall’s NEF and Seattle-based, Rotary-sponsored dentist Jeff Phillips, who volunteers his time to assist the Sherpas and their families, as well as his own trek to Mount Everest Base Camp.
On April 25, Versteeg had just returned to Namche Bazaar — the hub for Everest exploration — from Base Camp. He was staying in a lodge in Namche, which provided food and shelter, with no extravagances, and was constructed, like most buildings in the village, out of large stones and no cement. He emphasized that it was not a hotel.
Versteeg and two friends had just ordered lunch when the earthquake hit. They ran outside, feeling the ground shake as they watched buildings sway.
After the initial quake and a series of major aftershocks, many of the international visitors moved to a camp on a nearby mountain. Despite what they were going through, the Nepalese people did their best to take care of the many international visitors who were trapped by the quake.
“The people from Namche were fantastic,” Versteeg said. “There were hundreds of trekkers from all over the place who didn’t know what to do.”
Eventually, Versteeg and his companions were able to arrange for a helicopter ride to Lukla, where the nearest airport to Namche Bazaar is located. They waited there a couple of days before they could fly to Kathmandu.
The capital and largest city in Nepal, Kathmandu was just 80 kilometres from the earthquake’s epicentre, and sustained significant damage, particularly in older parts of the 3,000-year-old city.
“The situation was pretty grave, but I was surprised by how much was still standing,” Versteeg said.
Eventually, Versteeg flew from Kathmandu to Delhi, beginning his journey home. It was 41 hours before he made it to Vancouver for a “tearful reunion” with his wife, Elly Driessen, and her sister. “That was a minor inconvenience after what we went through,” he said.
When Winfrey made it home a few days after the quake, she was still in shock — as much because of the contrast in cultures as because of what she had just gone through.
“Even coming home from Nepal in the first place would be a shock,” she said. “It’s harder to come back home than it is to go there, coming from the poverty to the massive amounts of wealth.”
Winfrey was alone at the house where she stayed with other volunteers when the earthquake hit. She heard it before she felt it.
“I thought it was like a truck or a train, and I thought, what the heck is coming down our street?” she recalled. “I stepped onto the balcony, and in less than five seconds, I knew what it was.”
With the building swaying side-to-side, Winfrey watched from her third-floor balcony as the eight-foot brick wall around the house crumbled “like it was nothing.” As fast as she could, she got out of the building.
“I’m from B.C., so I know the drill,” she said.
A strong aftershock followed. “Then I knew it was serious,” Winfrey said. “I still had cell service, so I sent a text and posted on Facebook to tell people I was alive. I didn’t know the extent, but I knew it was big.”
That night, Winfrey stayed in a tent city, where she was the only westerner. She stayed awake for 36 hours.
“The ground kept shaking,” she recalled. “There were always little tremors, and quite a few notable ones, like fours and fives.”
While she was relieved to be home, Winfrey envisioned a return, maybe as soon as 2016, to help with the recovery.
“Part of me needs to go back,” she said.
Kosa was working at the United Nations Development Programme in Kathmandu.
She “knew the drill” too, but said she froze when she felt the earthquake.
“All my earthquake training — drop! cover! and hold! — was erased from my mind as I watched people stampede from the restaurant,” she wrote. “I was stupefied and I certainly did not drop, cover and hold, but merely went to the wall away from people, pots and chandeliers. You never know how you’ll react in a situation like this. You can prepare, you can know exactly what to do; yet, when you’re thrust headfirst into the moment of truth you have no idea how you’ll react.
“The funny thing is, my office had an earthquake drill five days before the real one. Of course, everybody treats it as a fire drill and never thinks it will happen any time soon. I was aware that Nepal was expecting the ‘big one,’ and it was always at the back of my mind, but I never thought it would happen while I was there for my six-month placement. But that’s the scary thing; you never know when it’s going to happen. Even now when I am no longer in Nepal, it still feels like the earth is shaking. I know it’s not shaking; however, after having experiencing aftershocks for days on end it’s difficult to adjust to solid, unmoving ground.”
Marshall, who founded the Nepal Education Fund in 2004, wasn’t sure if she would rather be in Duncan or Nepal after the earthquake. Being home meant she was safe and could support relief efforts but if she had been in Nepal, she could have been more involved.
“We were blown away by the poverty,” she recalled.
With the help of donors from around the world, Marshall and the NEF assist about 160 children in Nepal’s two largest cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara, and surrounding villages.
Several children sponsored by the NEF lost their homes in the earthquake, and affiliated schools were damaged, but all NEF staff were okay.
Information on how to donate to NEF is available at www.nepaledfund.ca
Kosa dreamed of seeing Nepal restored to its former beauty.
“Everything about Nepal is colourful,” she wrote. “The temples. The stupas. The people. Bordered by red cloth, you would see the temples pointed to the sky in the cultural hubs of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur Durbar squares. They were places of worship, places where tourists would spend the day milling around and eating on rooftop terraces. They were places where you would see holy men beside young artists sketching the beauty of urban life. I’m using past tense, but these things can be rebuilt and restored.”