KATHMANDU, Nepal — Shell-shocked and sleeping in the streets, tens of thousands of Nepalis braced against terrifying aftershocks Sunday while digging for survivors of the massive earthquake that ripped across this Himalayan nation a day earlier, killing more than 2,500 people.
Acrid, white smoke rose above Nepal’s most revered Hindu temple, where dozens of bodies were being cremated at any given time.
Aid groups received the first word from remote mountain villages – reports that suggested many communities perched on mountainsides were devastated or struggling to cope.
Landslides hindered rescue teams that tried to use mountain trails to reach those in need, said Prakash Subedi, chief district official in the Gorkha region, where the quake was centered.
“Villages like this are routinely affected by landslides, and it’s not uncommon for entire villages of 200, 300, up to 1,000 people to be completely buried by rock falls,” said Matt Darvas, a member of the aid group World Vision. “It will likely be helicopter access only.”
Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake spread horror from Kathmandu to small villages and to the slopes of Mount Everest, triggering an avalanche that buried part of the base camp packed with foreign climbers preparing to make their summit attempts. At least 18 people died there and 61 were injured.
With people fearing more quakes, tens of thousands spent the day crowding in the streets and the night sleeping in parks or on a golf course. Others camped in open squares lined by cracked buildings and piles of rubble. Helicopter blades thudded periodically overhead.
Crows screeched as the ground shook with the worst of the aftershocks – magnitude 6.7. Panicked residents raced outdoors.
“We don’t feel safe at all. There have been so many aftershocks. It doesn’t stop,” said Rajendra Dhungana, 34, who spent the day with his niece’s family for her cremation at the Pashuputi Nath Temple in Katmandu. “I’ve watched hundreds of bodies burn. I never thought I’d see so many … Nepal should learn a lesson from this. They should realize proper buildings should be built. There should be open spaces people can run to.”
By late Sunday, the aftershocks appeared to be weakening. A magnitude 5.3 quake shook an area east of Kathmandu.
Nepal authorities said Sunday that at least 2,430 people died in that country alone, not including the 18 dead in the avalanche. Another 61 people died from the quake in India and a few in other neighboring countries.
At least 1,152 people died in Kathmandu, and the number of injured nationwide was upward of 5,900. With search-and-rescue efforts far from over, it was unclear how much the death toll would rise. Three policemen died during a rescue effort in Kathmandu, police spokesman Komal Singh Bam said.
The capital city is largely a collection of small, poorly constructed brick apartment buildings. But outside of the oldest neighborhoods, many in Kathmandu were surprised by how few modern structures collapsed in the quake.
While aid workers cautioned that many buildings could have sustained serious structural damage, it was also clear that the death toll would have been far higher had more buildings caved in.
Aid workers also warned that the situation could be far worse near the epicenter. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centered near Lamjung, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Kathmandu.
In the aftermath, United Nations officials were concerned about thunderstorms that could threaten the many people staying outdoors and about a shortage of vaccines that could invite disease.
As planeloads of supplies, doctors and relief workers arrived from neighboring countries, journalists reported on social media that aftershocks forced some aircraft to circle the Kathmandu airport while waiting to land.
Thousands of Indians lined up in hopes of gaining a seat on a plane returning to New Delhi. One of those fleeing, 32-year-old tailor Assad Alam, said he and his wife and daughter were leaving with heavy hearts.
“It was a very difficult decision. I have called this home for seven years. But you have to think about the family, about your child.”
The earthquake was the worst to hit the South Asian nation in more than 80 years. It destroyed swaths of the oldest neighborhoods of Kathmandu and was strong enough to be felt all across parts of India, Bangladesh, China’s region of Tibet and Pakistan.
Nepal’s worst recorded earthquake in 1934 measured 8.0 and all but destroyed the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan.
Rescuers aided by international teams spent Sunday digging through rubble of buildings – concrete slabs, bricks, iron beams, wood – to look for survivors. Because the air was filled with chalky concrete dust, many people wore breathing masks or held shawls over their faces.
Hundreds of people in Kathmandu’s western Kalanki neighborhood nervously watched the slow progress of a single backhoe digging into the rubble of the collapsed Lumbini Guest House, once a three-story budget hotel.
Police officer RP Dhamala, who was coordinating the rescue efforts, said they had already pulled out 12 people alive and six dead. He said rescuers were still searching for about 20 people believed to be trapped but had heard no cries, taps or noises for a while.
Most areas were without power and water. The United Nations said hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley were overcrowded and running out of emergency supplies and space to store corpses.
Most shops in Kathmandu were closed after the government declared a weeklong period of recovery. Only fruit vendors and pharmacies seemed to be doing business.
“More people are coming now,” fruit seller Shyam Jaiswal said. “They cannot cook so they need to buy something they can eat raw.”
Jaiswal said stocks were running out, and more shipments were not expected for at least a week, but added, “We are not raising prices. That would be illegal, immoral profit.”
The quake will probably put a huge strain on the resources of this impoverished country best known for Everest, the highest mountain in the world. The economy of Nepal, a nation of 27.8 million people, relies heavily on tourism, principally trekking and Himalayan mountain climbing.
The first nations to respond were Nepal’s neighbors – India, China and Pakistan, all of which have been jockeying for influence over the landlocked nation. Nepal remains closest to India, with which it shares deep political, cultural and religious ties.
India suffered its own losses from the quake, with at least 61 people killed there and dozens injured. Sunday’s aftershock was also widely felt in the country, and local news reports said metro trains in New Delhi and Kolkata were briefly shut down when the shaking started.
Other countries sending support Sunday included the United States, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Israel and Singapore.
An American military plane left Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base for Nepal, carrying 70 people, including a disaster-assistance response team and an urban search-and-rescue team, and 45 tons of cargo, the Pentagon said.
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