I was asked after returning to the Charikot Army Base less than an hour after the second earthquake hit Nepal on the 12th of May. I had just returned from a very brief flight on a U.S. Marine Corp helicopter to check outlying areas in the mountains that were uncontactable by phone or radio to check for casualties and assess the damage.
The Nepalese Army had just informed us that they had heard of a landslide near the epicentre between Singati and Lapilang, requesting the marines to fly back out to see what they could do. My answer in the negative was in order to free up space for casualties and is probably the reason I am writing this now.
The US Marines had been working with us as part of the aid effort in the aftermath of the initial earthquake on April 25th which killed over 9,000 people and left millions homeless and entire villages flattened.
For a week, the Marines had flown from Kathmandu to Charikot each day, carrying supplies, picking me up with more food, medicine and shelter materials to fly back and forth to villages cut off from the general aid effort and unreachable by road and by aid agencies.
Each day, they arrived and navigated the approximate – often inaccurate- coordinates we provided for landing sites high in the mountains. Never once did they fail to find somewhere to land near small villages- or what used to be small villages but were reduced to mounds of rubble- to drop off whatever they could carry.
Nothing was ever a hassle. The refrain was always ‘Where do you want us to go next?’ There was no frustration when we landed at one site, but miscommunication with the village meant everyone was waiting 300m down the hill, or about 5km via the windy paths.
I have a vivid memory of one of the Marines, a 6’4” gentle giant, handing over tarpaulins and rice to a weathered old man and his wife who were tending their sheep, and then helping them carry them back to what was left of their mountain home.
This was what we were doing on the morning of May 12th. It was the plan for the afternoon. At midday, the marine helicopter returned to Kathmandu to refuel. Shortly after, the ground in Charikot began to shake. It continued to shake for at least five minutes.
Looking across the valley toward what I later learned was the epicentre of an earthquake of magnitude 7.3 on the Richter Scale; I could see plumes of brown dust rising in thin spirals. Gradually the valley filled with dust from collapsed houses.
The Nepalese Army sprang into action, using their 4x4s to bring the injured from the town to the base, hoping there would be a way to get them to Kathmandu.
Minutes later, the Marines arrived, having just heard on the radio that there had been another ‘quake. The afternoon plans had changed and the Marines did not break stride, asking ‘Where do you need us to go, Blackbeard?’ They called me Blackbeard or Irishman. But I had no idea where to go.
With direction from Major Razan of the Nepalese Army, we went to the areas they had not been able to contact. We landed at Orang, Bigu and Alumpu and everyone was ok. There were no houses left to collapse.
We got back to Charikot and there were new instructions from the Major. ‘Can you go to Lapilang> There has been a landslide. There are casualties’. I stayed to leave space for as many injured people as possible on the helicopter.
That was around 2pm. The Marines left. A second helicopter arrived and followed them.
Major Razan asked me what was happening. I didn’t know. I called Kathmandu. They didn’t know. I assumed, for some reason, that the Marines had been stood down and had returned to the capital.
I got back to work trying to figure out what was next for Plan International’s response in Nepal. The goalposts had been moved. And some of our team had been near the epicentre, safe, but stuck behind a landslide. Probably for the night.
Near midnight, I got a call from the Major asking if I had heard anything more on the helicopter. I hadn’t. Nor had the Major.
Everyone knew something was wrong. But for three days, even the Major was silent. The Major and I got on well. He had been in Syria with UN peacekeepers not long before and had to be rescued from Syrian rebels by the Irish Defence Forces Quick Response Force. He liked the Irish. He always had time to talk to me but now he had a job to do and it was to find a US helicopter with six Marines and two of his own men on board.
Slowly the news filtered out, confirming the helicopter had crashed. It had picked up five casualties at Singati and was going directly back to Kathmandu when they hit a cloud layer in the mountains to the north of Charikot. They were trying to make their way through the layer to the Western side of the ridge when they crashed into the mountain. There were 13 people on board: five civilians, six US Marines and two Nepalese soldiers. All 13 had died.
From the US Marines there was: Capt Dustin R. Lukasiewicz, Capt Christopher L. Norgren, Sgt Ward M. Johnson, Sgt Eric M. Seaman, Cpl Sara A. Medina, Lance Cpl Jacob A. Hug
From the Nepalese Armed Forces there was Tapendra Rawal and Basanta Titara.
They died doing humanitarian work.
As aid agencies, 12 months on from the Nepal Earthquake, we remember the lives lost in the earthquake, we continue to try to help the people of Nepal to rebuild, but we try not to forget those that lost their lives working hand-in-hand with us.
Dualta Roughneen is Plan International Ireland’s Head of Programmes, and was formerly Disaster Risk Management Coordinator. He spent five weeks in Nepal in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes responding to the needs of the Nepalese people.