EarthquakePosted: September 19, 2011
So you might have seen in the news that there was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake in Sikkim province, India on Sunday 19 September. Me and my buddy Sam were sitting in a cafe about 20 kilometres from the epicentre when the quake struck.
At first I thought Sam was jiggling his foot under the table. Then our half finished plate of momos started rattling and I noticed everyone else in the cafeteria looking around in alarm. Suddenly the shaking intensified and the realisation struck: earthquake!
Panic broke out and everyone sprinted for the door. The lights went out and tables and chairs were knocked over tripping me up as I ran for the door. I was sure the building was about to collapse. All I could think about was getting out. I pushed through the door in a crush of bodies and raced across the verandah where the concrete pillars were swaying side to side. Outside was pitch black, intensifying the sound of frantic yelling.
“Sam! Sam!” I screamed out.
He had been behind me leaving the cafeteria and as I looked back I could see the whole building was shaking. Inside I could see the illuminated screen of my computer in the dark, swaying wildly on the table. Cracks in the tiling opened up under our feet. I still couldn’t see Sam.
Then I saw him run out at the door and I grabbed him and we man-hugged it out in the dark. A woman was screaming hysterically, hyperventilating. Another woman clutched her tightly and we went over and did our best to calm her, telling her to take slow deep breaths. The shaking continued even when we were outside, it’s hard to say for how long, maybe 20 seconds, maybe less. It seemed much, much longer.
Eventually it subsided and everyone started calling out to each other in the dark, finding each other and hugging.One by one people took out their cellphones and used them to illuminate around us. Large cracks had opened up all along the base of the building we were just in. Plaster and concrete had fallen from fissures running up the wall. For most of the Indians on the mountaineering course in which we were participating this was their first experience with an earthquake and they started crowding around the building inspecting the damage.
“Get back! Get back!” Sam and I both started yelling. “The building is unstable. There could be more aftershocks.”
They moved back a little but we could see they weren’t convinced by our explanations. In their minds it was over; it wasn’t their time yet to die. Laughter broke out, partly nervous, partly at the two westerners who were so obviously overreacting.
“Let’s all move down together to an open space,” we suggested.
We left, the others followed us, more out of a herd mentality than any faith in our knowledge about earthquake precautions.
Back at the barracks half the students had already returned to their rooms.
“Get out of the building!” we screamed. “There could be aftershocks.”
But they just laughed at us.
“Relax guys, do not be so afraid. Do not be panicking.”
“We’re not panicking, we’re trying to explain to you guys that its not safe to be in the buildings right now. An aftershock could hit at any time.”
“No, the earthquake is finished, it is safe now,” one man said to me.
“The building is fine.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it is.”
“Are you an engineer?”
“No, I know because it is the news.”
We went to find an instructor.
“What’s happening? What’s the plan now? We need to set up some tents because its raining.”
“Wait, wait. We call the director now.”
“In the meantime what are you going to do? We need to get everyone out of the buildings.”
“Please, you wait, go inside. Everything will be ok.”
I decided to take the initiative and assemble my group of which I was leader.
“Rope nine!” I screamed out into the night, shining my torch around.
“Rope nine fall in!”
The urgency in my voice, and their basic instinct to follow orders overrode their skepticism at my order. As I called for my rope to fall in, the other rope leaders assumed that an order had been given and began calling for their groups to fall in also. Soon, we were assembled in the courtyard away from the buildings and I was able to complete a head count of my group.
One of the instructors appeared.
“Right, what’s happening now?” I asked.
“Ok I will talk to everyone now, we are still trying to contact the director, the phones are not working.”
“Yes but its very important that we stay away from the buildings until they have been inspected.”
“No, our buildings are strong, they are made of concrete.”
I gave up and went back to my group. One of them was a civil engineer and with him we made a tour of the buildings with our torches.
“I think the barracks ok,” he said finally. “But it would be best if we slept outside.”
We agreed with him and took our mats and sleeping bags up to a sheltered courtyard. The other students laughed at us and told us again to stop panicking.
“Be calm, do not be afraid,” they kept saying.
“We’re not panicking,” we replied again and again. “But we have experience with earthquakes and we’re wary of aftershocks.”
The power was out and the phone lines were down. We tried in vain to make a phone call or get on the internet. There was no way of contacting home. There was nothing else to do so we gave up and went to bed in the courtyard to laughter from the barracks.
Shortly afterwards a rumour circulated that another quake was coming at 11.00pm. It was ludicrous, especially the precision at which the aftershock was predicted yet suddenly there was such a stampede out of the barracks that we thought there must have been an aftershock. I have no idea where the rumour came from or why they took it seriously after laughing at our own concerns but suddenly everyone was nervous and didn’t want to sleep inside.
Sam and I went to sleep on our mats on the concrete huddled together for warmth, feeling frustrated, a little vindicated but mainly happy to be alive.
Ninja-edit: Here is Sam’s awesomer account of the quake. I reckon though that he must have read mine first and then improved on it. That lily-gilding little prat.