JOHN McNAMEE TALKS TO A SYDNEY COUPLE WHO SURVIVED THE NIGHTMARE IN NEPAL
AROUND 11am on April 25 this year, retired Sydney insurance executive Ken Ryan and his wife Anne decided to go for a stroll in Kathmandu.
They’d only just arrived in the former Nepalese kingdom from neighbouring Bhutan where one of the highlights of their trip was a three-hour steep ascent to the Buddhist monastery of Taktsang Palphug, known as the Tiger’s Nest.
This revered site is chiselled into the dizzyingly high crags of the Himalayas in Bhutan’s Upper Paro Valley.
So it was with great excitement that the adventure-loving couple headed to their next stop…Kathmandu.
Once there, they planned to climb the lofty Bhimsen Observation Tower in the city’s Durbar Square, a 60m tall structure which provides majestic sights of the awe-inspiring valley below.
But they were not to know that their dream holiday was about to turn into one of their worst nightmares and they would never get to climb the 300-odd steps up that historic structure.
Earlier on that Saturday after arriving in the mountain capital, and checking into their hotel, they sauntered off to view the magnificent former Royal Palace which has been turned into a museum since the abolition of the country’s ancient monarchy.
“It took us about 40 minutes to walk there from our hotel and when we got to the Palace, I spotted a guard standing in one of the turrets about three metres up along the high palace walls, he was very friendly and we started chatting to him,” Ken told Go55s.
“Anyway not long after that we returned to our hotel and walked into a little nearby café to order a sandwich for lunch and it was then, not long after midday, that we felt the first tremors,” Ken said.
“As well as the café staff, there were just three of us, Anne and myself and a young American girl who was part of our tourist group.
“Suddenly I felt a series of slight movements under my feet and I said to Anne, ‘I think we’re having an earthquake.’
“Then we noticed more tremors and we saw the café cabinets start sliding across the floor. The man behind the counter shouted out to us to crawl under the table as it was bolted to the floor.
“By this time the tremors were increasing and more furniture started moving around the place. It was becoming harder to stay on our feet and the room began shaking quite violently.
“The girl who was with us made a dash for the door but she finished up falling over on her back and sliding back along the floor.
“I picked her up and said to Anne ‘let’s get out of here’ and we raced outside where we could see wholesale signs of panic and chaos.
“We took shelter outside but then noticed that there were sagging power poles with live wires hanging down everywhere and large cracks were starting to open up along the streets.
“The hotel staff began ushering us into the nearby car park and after a short time there were hundreds of us, tourists and locals, huddled around, all trying to stay together and worried that the nearby tall buildings which we could see were shaking, would fall on us.
“Around about was total disaster. Apart from anything else, it was the Indian holiday season and the streets were milling with panicking people of all ages.”
.Official accounts of that dreadful day record that the earthquake occurred at 11:56am local time. It had a magnitude of 7.8m on the Richter scale. Its epicentre was east of the district of Lamjung, about 100km from Kathmandu and its hypocentre was at a depth of approximately 15 km (9.3 mi).
More than 8000 people were killed, making it the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since 1934.
The earthquake also triggered an avalanche on Mt Everest killing at least 19, and making April 25, 2015 the deadliest day on the mountain in history.
The earthquake set off another huge avalanche in the Langtang valley, where 250 people were reported missing.[
All over Nepal, hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless with entire villages including schools and hospitals flattened.
The beautiful city of Kathmandu was devastated, its Royal Palace and Observation Tower just two of the historic sites reduced to rubble.
Today the massive clean-up operation continues with more bodies being found in the rubble and the beleaguered country still desperate for foreign aid and donations.
Meanwhile as the aftermath of the quake was all around them, Ken and Anne were still sheltering in the now crowded car park.
“We were there for most of that day while the devastation continued. All the time we noticed more cracks just rippling frighteningly across the paved surface and one woman was knocked off her feet screaming in panic.
“We were all pretty well in a state of shock. There were helicopters and ambulances racing around everywhere and later in the day we noticed the Hercules relief aircraft arriving from India with vital supplies and medical aid.
“We could still feel the aftershocks and tremors continuing all day. Late in the afternoon the hotel staff said our building had not sustained major damage and we could return to our rooms at our own risk.
“We walked up seven flights of stairs to our room…the fifth floor was pretty badly damaged as the pool had been destroyed and water had gushed right through the landing into the rooms.
“We laid on the bed fully clothed listening to the appalling chaos outside. We were exhausted, hungry and thirsty. There were of course no facilities or services, no lights no TV or internet so we did not know at that stage how bad the situation was.
“That night for a meal we had potato chips, chocolate and beer..all from the mini bar,” Ken said.
The next day they decided to leave their room and join the rest of the hotel guests in the downstairs ballroom and lobby which were being used as makeshift evacuation shelters.
“There were still aftershocks and we thought if the hotel gets hit, we didn’t want to have to race down seven flights of stairs with a lot of panic-stricken people,” Ken said.
They spent the next two days in this state of limbo until their tour group advised them that there were scheduled flights leaving the city and Ken and Anne decided it was time to leave.
“There were three-kilometre long queues of people lining up to get into the airport and as we went along in the hotel bus we could fully appreciate the carnage and devastation left in the wake of the earthquake,” Ken said.
“The airport terminal was chaotic, no signage boards, no flight desks, everything was in a mess,” he said. “The airport runways were choked with massive relief and rescue aircraft. We thought we’d never get out.”
They waited an agonizing five and a half hours before finally their China Air flight scheduled to take them to their next destination at Lhasa in Tibet, took off over the shattered ruins of Kathmandu.
“Well we thought we were being flown to Lhasa but during the flight we heard the pilot say we would be landing in Shengdu in China in about an hour. It was a bit of a shock after all we’d been through.
“But we were told not to worry too much as we could get another plane from Shengdu to take us on the final leg to Tibet,” Ken says.
“I suppose it was somewhat of an anticlimax but we knew we were the lucky ones, we got out without a scratch and we were able, sometime later to continue our travels.”
Ken, 72 and Anne, 64, a retired financial advisor, were talking to Go55s in the comfort of the Sydney beachside home they have lived in for 39 years. They have raised two children and now have two grandchildren.
Would they ever think of going back to Nepal?
“We’d go back tomorrow if we had the chance, but we know in our hearts that it will be a very long, long time before Kathmandu will be in any way restored.
“And my dream to climb that tower will never happen now and I still often think of that turret guard at the Royal Palace…he wouldn’t have stood a chance.
“And if we’d stayed there another half hour, I don’t think we would have made it out of there either,” Ken said.
FOOTNOTE: Another major aftershock occurred on May 12, with a magnitude of 7.3m. The epicentre was near the Chinese border between Kathmandu and Mt. Everest.[ More than 200 people were killed and more than 2,500 were injured by this aftershock.
Pic 1 Main page
KEN AND ANNE RYAN OF SYDNEY WITH A COPY OF A LOCAL NEWSPAPER GRAPHICALLY DEPICTING THE HORRORS OF THE APRIL EARTHQUAKE IN NEPAL WHICH THEY SURVIVED
Pic 2 Following pages
KEN AND ANNE RYAN OUTSIDE THEIR BEACHSIDE SYDNEY HOME AFTER THEIR RETURN FROM EARTHQUAKE-RAVAGED KATHMANDU
Pic 3 and 4
The palace before and after the blast