As I boarded an Air India flight to India with my rescue teams, preparing to withdraw from disaster-stricken Nepal, the memories of a people who had survived a “natural” disaster filled my mind. I had seen a society in mourning, uncertainty and despair adding to their suffering.
I had witnessed arguments on the preparedness for such disasters. As people try to put back things together, they also know that future earthquakes are inevitable. Because as Edward Simpson, professor in social anthropology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, writes: “An earthquake does not conclude. It lives in metaphor and history, passing in and out of popular consciousness.”
The April 25 earthquake that devastated Nepal stunned the entire world. It was the Himalayan nation’s deadliest disaster in more than 80 years, killing thousands and causing immense destruction.
The first international response and assurance to the Nepalese people came from the Indian Prime Minister who spoke to the political leaders of the devastated nation and promptly dispatched a strong contingent of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) as an Indian search-and-rescue force.
Swift and coordinated rescue efforts make a difference in coping with the aftermath of any disaster, natural or otherwise, in terms of saving lives and minimizing property loss. The severity of the Nepal disaster, with the death toll rising steadily and many buried in remote mountainous regions, warranted large, swift and coordinated rescue efforts.
Constrained by limited resources, Nepal simply could not cope alone and, therefore, the assurance given by India’s Prime Minister provided succour to the grief-stricken people. In keeping with its commitment to humanitarian causes, India led the way in rescue-and-relief. Its first seven rescue teams, comprising 305 multi-skilled and internationally-trained personnel of NDRF, reached Kathmandu within six hours of the tragedy and started round-the-clock rescue operations in the affected areas of the valley and its surroundings.
The NDRF, perhaps the only force completely dedicated to disaster response, expanded its search to the southern part of the capital and its suburbs after having searched 24 locations in the northern, northwestern and northeastern areas of Kathmandu.
Established in 2006, the force has been very active in responding to disasters. The response of the NDRF team during the triple disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 had drawn praise from the people of Japan, including its Prime Minister.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal, along with the Indian Ambassador, visited multiple rescue sites where Indian teams were deployed and praised the personnel on their professionalism and efficiency.
Racing against time to save people from an earthquake that had already claimed more than 5,000 lives, Indian teams pulled out seven live victims during different rescue attempts in the first twelve hours of the operation.
“Some of these victims were buried under load-bearing walls, so rescuers had to work carefully to avoid a second collapse,” said P K Srivastav, Commanding Officer of the NDRF battalion of Ghaziabad whose six teams were involved in the rescue operations.
In some operations, rescuers had to take turns every 10 minutes to edge into a gap cut through twisted iron rods. “The frequent aftershocks made rescue even more difficult,” Srivastav said.
People from other neighbourhoods sought the help of Indian rescuers to seek out possible survivors buried under collapsed buildings.
Each NDRF rescue operation, especially in the Kathmandu valley, had its own particular features and demands in terms of the technique and equipment used, the personnel involved and the time required.
As teams assessed buildings that had suffered total collapse, NDRF personnel looked for the existence of sufficient number of survival spaces and the stability of the ruins. Finding the exact position of trapped people was of primary importance for swift, safe approach and rescue. Use of sound-detecting devices, trained dogs, information and on-the-spot examination went a long way in planning the quickest, safest route for rescue teams.
Working with small, medium and heavy sophisticated technical equipment required for rescue in disasters of such magnitude, teams of the NDRF started their operations without delay as their equipment and technical tools have the capability to hear sounds, locate victims and break layers of concrete, iron, rocks, etc in the process of pulling out live victims.
In one of the operations, these rescuers saved a woman trapped for 36 hours in the ruins of her meat shop. Forty-three-year-old Tanka Sitaula had slim hopes of emerging alive until she heard the noise of rescuers sifting through the rubble. Of the 14 people trapped under the debris of the building, Sitaula was the only survivor.
“Before I was discovered by a joint rescue team led by Indian rescuers, I had lost all hope of seeing this world again,” she recalled. She was washing dishes — her husband and sons had left home after lunch — when the building collapsed. “Before removing the debris, we had to confirm her location. We told her to knock something close to her,” Inspector Karan, team leader of NDRF, said.
Working in different areas of the country — the effort was being coordinated by the Nepal Army — NDRF teams carried out rescue operations in close conjunction with local authorities and pulled out 11 live victims and extricated 133 bodies of Nepalese and foreign origin.
These rescuers, with the help of their own medical component, established medical camps at Shobha Bhagwati Bridge, Tilganga and the new bus park area and attended to 1,219 affected people. The deployment of NDRF, which has been trained as a friendly outfit, was a tremendous success and its role was appreciated by the affected communities, the Government of Nepal and international participants.
The personnel of Indian rescue teams brought a few smiles on the faces of those who had just been through the most frightening experience of their lives.
(Originally, this article has been published in the Indian Express, New Delhi, on May 9)