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Apr 26, 2015 11:59 AM

Quake agony revealed quietly on trip from Nepal airport

The Associated Press

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) Soon after landing at Kathmandu airport, the Thai Airways captain made a bizarre announcement to passengers: Nobody is in the control tower.

That meant we could taxi no farther, and we were trapped on the tarmac. It took the pilot another half-hour to explain that air-traffic controller had left the tower because there had been an aftershock, one of several that has struck fear into this mountainous nation since Saturday's massive tremor killed more than 2,500 people.

Those moments and many others in my first hours in Nepal's capital revealed that while much of Kathmandu appears to have been spared physical damage from the earthquake, other signs of trauma are everywhere.

We waited while airport officials inspected the tarmac for damage and cracks. In the back of the plane, an argument broke out. A Thai airways staffer was telling a Chinese businessman to get off his cellphone.

"I will not!" shouted Jun Sun. "I'm speaking to my family. This is important.

"I need to know they are OK now. I need to know my wife and daughter are OK."

Sun, who works in the telecommunications industry, said he was returning from a conference in Bangkok. He tried to call his wife to find out how she and his 10-month-old daughter were, but could not get through because the network was so congested.

He spoke to her "for a few seconds" on the Chinese social media service WeChat it was just enough to know they were alive.

On Sunday he was able to really talk to them for the first time.

"They slept out in the open last night. I'm going to get them out of here," he said. "It's not safe yet. Something worse may yet happen."

He pulled out his cellphone and showed several images of destroyed homes in Kathmandu that colleagues had sent.

"This is what we are worried about," he said, pointing to a picture of a huge crack running up the side of the multi-story apartment building he lives in.

When our jet finally got the green light to move forward, well over an hour later, it taxied past a large Indian military cargo plane. Soldiers stood on the tarmac, unloading supplies and trolleys filled with fuel which Kathmandu residents say is running precariously low.

On the walk into the airport, we could see hundreds of people, mostly tourists, crowded behind the glass walls of a terminal building, clearly hoping for a flight out. One man's face was covered with large bandages.

Elsewhere, foreign rescue teams could be seen sitting in groups, planning missions into the city.

Flights also resumed we saw a gray cargo plane hurtling above.

After customs, it was clear nothing was normal. The hotel reservations center was empty. The Yeti Money Exchange was empty.

And in the parking lot outside the arrivals hall, no taxis waited. Instead, thousands of scared and frustrated Indian nationals stood in huge lines, hoping to get on evacuation flights their government was organizing.

Tempers frayed as the wait dragged on.

Ghan Shyam Son said he and his family had been on a four-day trip as tourists and were supposed to leave Saturday.

"But our flight was canceled. We spent last night sleeping outside, in the open. We're trying to leave here, we're so afraid."

Pooja Bhandari, standing beside him, was blunt: "No water. No light. I am hungry. No drinking water. No sleeping well. Very disturbed," she said.

Another Indian national who had come to Nepal as a tourist sat forlornly on the curb. Two of her friends were missing, she said.

As I drove out of the airport with an Associated Press team of journalists, the line of desperate Indians wrapped around the block and then some.

Although the part of the city we drove through appeared largely undamaged, everyone, everywhere seemed to be sitting outside. The city's old quarter lies in ruins, but from above, most of Kathmandu looked as it always did. Five-, 10-, 15-story buildings spread across terraced hills that stretch into the distance.

Shops are shuttered, including Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins and Himalayan Java Coffee ("Serving Nepali Coffee Since 1999").

Grassy parks were full of distraught people, sitting, standing, talking. Many more congregated in groups, sitting on curbs, on steps, anywhere outside. They all fear another aftershock may bring down buildings yet.

At the Hotel Annapurna, a two-story wall in front of reception has a large crack in it. The electricity is out. The hallways are dark. Foreign guests took blankets and pillows and cushions and sat down outside.

This short trip from the airport merely hinted at the devastation this country has felt. The full story, told from vulnerable mountain villages, distant historic sites and other places, is still being revealed.


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