Rescuers push into Himalayan quake 'ground zero'

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 19 Sep 2011 View Original

By Rupam Jain Nair (AFP)

GANGTOK, India — Rescue teams faced a grim search for victims Tuesday as they converged on the remote epicentre of a powerful Himalayan earthquake that killed at least 67 people in India, Nepal and Tibet.

After a day spent battling landslides and heavy rains, the relief effort regrouped for an even tougher push into the mountainous northern region of India's Sikkim state, where Sunday's 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit on the border with Nepal.

Rescuers were hoping for a break in the weather that would allow them to fly in crucial supplies and personnel by helicopters that were largely grounded Monday by monsoon downpours and low cloud.

"The biggest challenge now is to get the rescue teams to the affected areas," said Sikkim Information Minister C.B. Karki.

The death toll from building collapses and landslides in Sikkim stood at 35, but Indian Home Secretary R.K. Singh warned the number could rise as emergency relief workers reached far-flung villages in the quake's main impact zone.

"We cannot rule out more casualties," Singh told a news briefing in New Delhi.

The few helicopter sorties carried out on Monday did manage to drop some food packages, and ferried two small medical teams with doctors and paramedics into the worst-affected districts of Mangan and Sangthan.

But the majority of rescue workers faced a gruelling 60-kilometre (37-mile) journey by land from Sikkim's state capital Gangtok along rough, badly damaged roads, more often frequented by groups of adventurous tourists heading for Himalayan trekking trails.

More than 5,000 army troops were mobilised across the state to help clear roads and assist with the relief operation.

The Press Trust of India said 26 tourists, including 15 trekkers, had been rescued and taken to army encampments for their own safety.

Hundreds of Gangtok residents spent a second night out in the open, too scared to sleep in homes badly damaged by the quake, which left deep fissures in the outer walls and ceilings of apartment blocks and buildings.

Many saw out the night in the city's football stadium, slinging plastic sheets over the goalposts or sleeping on the terraces.

"The stadium is our kitchen and bedroom for the night. We're honestly just too scared to consider anything else," said Amrita Laqandri, 32, as she helped make tea and warm bread on stoves brought from her family home.

There was some relief as power, cut off by the quake, was restored to the city Monday evening, but landline and mobile communications remained erratic, especially in the worst-affected areas.

The quake was felt across a wide region including the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan after it struck at about 6:10 pm (1240 GMT) on Sunday, according to the US Geological Survey.

Its epicentre was 68 kilometres northwest of Gangtok, at a relatively shallow depth of 19.7 kilometres.

In Nepal, eight people were killed and hundreds of homes destroyed or damaged in the east of the country, where rescuers faced the same problems as their Indian counterparts with rains and mudslides blocking the only highway.

"We have formed rescue teams in each affected district. They are assessing the damage and organising the rescue and relief operations," said Nepalese police spokesman Binod Singh.

Seventeen other people died in the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, while China's official Xinhua news agency said seven people had been killed in southern Tibet, near the border with Sikkim.

India's seven northeastern states, joined to the rest of the country by a narrow sliver of land known as the "chicken's neck," are located in an area of frequent seismic activity.

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