Close encounter in Kathmandu Airport hit by aftershocks

Close encounter in Kathmandu Airport hit by aftershocks

Saturday, April 25, was to be the last day of our photographic mission in Nepal.

My three friends and I woke up at 4.30am to overcast skies in Kathmandu and proceeded to the domestic airport for the Himalaya Sky Flight scheduled for 6.20am.

The pilot took off at 7am but had to abort the flight halfway as it was too cloudy and there was no sighting of the Himalaya range.

As it was still early, we decided to take a tour of Bhaktapur, the ancient capital of Nepal but now a part of Kathmandu. We took lots of pictures of the ancient shops and stupas with sadhus (Hindu priests)and devotees doing their rituals. Children were happily running around.

I was in the midst of taking photos of a smiling sadhu priest standing on the steps of an ancient stupa when all of a sudden, I felt rumblings on the ground.

My friend Daniel Wong, an experienced photographer, immediately shouted "Stand still, stand still, earthquake coming!"

All four of us immediately turned around and faced each other, putting our arms tightly on the others' shoulders to buffer against the stampede of people and collapsing structures around us.

My instinct at that point was to watch out for the tall temple swaying hardly 20 feet away from us. The rumblings mercifully stopped after 30 seconds. Huge blasts of dust and sand stones filled up the little open square we were in.

I looked around the stupa where the sadhu was sitting but it had already crumbled into piles of rubble with the elephant sculpture barely intact. People were running around. Group of tourists emerged from the narrow steps of the coffee houses they were in. Fortunately, these shops didn't collapse as they were coming out.

I was still trying to take more photos when Danny told us to run. The Nepali assistant took my heavy photographic equipment and guided me through the narrow lane we came from.

We ran over crumbled stones and hanging electrical wires to the entrance of Bhaktapur.

Major roads were cracked and it was a scene of utter chaos. Groups of people were trying to dig through the bricks to get at the people trapped inside. Children were crying and running helplessly.

We found our way to the airport, forcing the taxi driver to run over cracked roads only to discover that the airport was closed, with thousands of passengers waiting outside for departure.

Common sense told us that the AirAsia X flight at 3.15pm would be cancelled and our first instinct was to get back to the Hyatt, where we had just checked out, to take refuge.

Fortunately, the hotel allowed us to camp in the hotel grounds for the rest of the day, where we anxiously waited and were ready to run if there were more tremors. At night, we were allowed to camp in the hotel lobby but were awakened several times by tremors - each of which, of course, meant running out to the field.

All Internet connections were out and we could not receive any news of what was happening outside.

The next morning, we went to the airport at 6am and were told to check in for the rescue AirAsia X flight which was scheduled to touch down at 12.10pm. By 10am, we were told that the aircraft was circling and waiting to descend. What a sense of relief.

Unfortunately, at 11.30am, a major aftershock struck the city again. We felt the ­columns of the airport building swaying and were immediately allowed to camp on the tarmac where the planes were stationed.

We could see the comings and goings of military planes from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh but no sight of AirAsia X. By 3pm, we were told the plane had been diverted to Kolkata again.

Survival instincts prompted us to rush back to Hyatt Hotel to await any outcome. The hotel treated us well although food and water were scarce. We had rice and dhall for dinner and pieces of bread and water for breakfast.

On Monday morning, we left again for the airport and were most relieved to see someone holding the Malaysian flag, indicating it as the assembly point for the Hercules rescue plane.

The officer in charge, Fadli Adilah, welcomed us but advised us to check in on our booked commercial flight to give way to those who did not have any confirmed booking.

We checked in again for AirAsia X and anxiously prayed that there would not be any more tremors around the airport and city which could disrupt the flights.

The sight of the AirAsia X plane finally landing at about 2.30pm brought a huge outpouring of relief among all the passengers gathered.

We boarded and, within an hour, departed Kathmandu.

We are happy to be out of the devastated area but continue to be burdened by the suffering of the people of Nepal.

Last night, I dreamt of the sadhu on the steps of the stupa. I hope that means that he was spared.

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