Nepal Earthquake Kills Hundreds and Levels Buildings in Capital

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NEW DELHI — A powerful earthquake shookNepal on Saturday near its capital, Katmandu, flattening sections of the city’s historic center and trapping dozens of sightseers in a 200-foot watchtower that came crashing down into a pile of bricks. Officials in Nepal put the preliminary death toll at 1,157, nearly all of them in the valley around Katmandu. But it was an event that touched a vast swath of the subcontinent.

The quake set off avalanches around Mount Everest, where several hikers were reported to have died. At least 34 deaths occurred in northern India. Buildings swayed in Tibet and Bangladesh. The earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7.8, struck shortly before noon, and residents of Katmandu ran into the streets and other open spaces as buildings fell, throwing up clouds of dust. Wide cracks opened on paved streets and in the walls of city buildings. Motorcycles tipped over on their sides and slid off the edge of a highway. By midafternoon the United States Geological Survey had counted 12 aftershocks, one of which measured at a magnitude of 6.6. Seismologists have expected a major earthquake in western Nepal, where there is pent-up pressure from the grinding between tectonic plates — the northern Eurasia plate and the upthrusting Indian plate. Still, witnesses described a chaotic rescue effort during the first hours after the quake, as emergency workers and volunteers grabbed tools and bulldozers from construction sites, and dug with hacksaws, mangled rebar, and their hands. Kanak Mani Dixit, a Nepalese political commentator, said he had been having lunch with his parents when the quake struck. The rolling was so intense and sustained that he had trouble getting to his feet, he said. He helped his father and an elderly neighbor to safety in the garden outside and then had to carry his elderly mother. “And I had time to do all that while the quake was still going on,” Mr. Dixit said. “It was like being on a boat in heavy seas.”

Though many have worried about the stability of the concrete high-rises that have been hastily erected in Katmandu, the most terrible damage on Saturday was to the oldest part of the city, which is studded with temples and palaces made of wood and unmortared brick. Nepal EarthquakeFor many, the most breathtaking loss was the nine-story Dharahara Tower, which was built in 1832 on the orders of the queen. The tower had recently reopened to the public, which could ascend a narrow spiral staircase to a viewing platform around 200 feet above the city. The walls were brick, around one and a half feet thick, and when the earthquake struck they came crashing down.

Continue reading the main story The police on Saturday said they had pulled around 60 bodies from the rubble of the tower. Kashish Das Shrestha, a photographer and writer, spent much of the day in the old city, but said he still had trouble grasping that the tower was gone. “I was here yesterday, I was here the day before yesterday and it was there,” he said. “Today it’s just gone. Last night, from my terrace, I was looking at the tower. And today I was at the tower — and there is no tower.” Advertisement Continue reading the main story Joydeb Chakravarty, managing director of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Nepal, said he had been grocery shopping when the quake struck. “And suddenly, everything started collapsing around us,” he said. “The shelves all came down, the food items all crashed down. We were barely able to get out the emergency exit.” For years, people have worried about an earthquake of this magnitude in western Nepal, which saw its last massively destructive event more than 100 years ago. Many feared that an immense death toll would result, in part because in recent years construction has been largely unregulated, said Ganesh K. Bhattari, a Nepalese expert on earthquakes now living in Denmark. He said the government had made some improvements in making some buildings more robust and reinforcing vulnerable ones, but that many larger buildings, such as hospitals and old-age homes, remained extremely vulnerable. “There is a little bit of improvement,” he said. “But it is really difficult for people to implement the rules and the regulations.” Saturday’s earthquake struck when schools were not in session, which may have reduced the death toll. And the building collapses in Katmandu appeared largely confined to brick structures in the city’s historic area, rather than concrete high-rise buildings. But there was not yet a full picture of the damage to villages on the mountain ridges around Katmandu, where families live in houses made of mud and thatch. As night fell, aftershocks were still hitting, prompting waves of screaming. Many residents sat in the road for much of the day, afraid to go back indoors, and many insisted that they would spend the night outside, despite the cold. Thousands camped out at the city’s parade ground. The city’s shops were running short of bottled water, stocks of dry food, and telephone charge cards. China and India, which jockey for influence in this region, have each pledged to step in with disaster assistance. The earthquake set off avalanches on Mount Everest, where several hundred trekkers were attempting an ascent, according to climbers there. Via Twitter, Alex Gavan, a hiker at base camp, described a “huge earthquake then huge avalanche,” and “running for life from my tent.” Nima Namgyal Sherpa, a tour guide at base camp, described one avalanche as “huge” and said it had caused many injuries. “Many camps have been destroyed by the shake and wind from the avalanche,” Mr. Sherpa, the base camp manager for Asian Trekking, wrote in a post on Facebook. “All the doctors here are doing our best to treat and save lives.” Ten people died on Mount Everest after the earthquake, Nepalese officials said. Tremors from the quake were felt across northern India, rattling bookcases and light fixtures as far away as Delhi.

Electricity was switched off for safety reasons in the Indian state of Bihar, where three deaths were reported in one district, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, India’s minister of skill development, told reporters in New Delhi. Two other deaths were reported in a second district. Historically, the region has been the site of the largest earthquakes in the Himalayas. A 2005 quake in Kashmir and a 1905 earthquake in Kangra, India, resulted in a death toll of more than 100,000 people, according to the United States Geological Survey. Reporting was contributed by Gardiner Harris, Nida Najar and Hari Kumar from New Delhi; Bhadra Sharma from Katmandu, Nepal; and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong.