By Krista Mahr and Ross Adkin
Hundreds of Nepali troops searched for a missing U.S. Marine helicopter with eight people on board on Wednesday, a day after the second powerful earthquake in less than three weeks killed scores and sent panicked residents rushing out of buildings.
The Himalayan nation is still reeling from last month’s devastating quake measuring 7.8 that killed more than 8,000 people and injured close to 20,000.
The U.S. helicopter was delivering aid in Dolakha, one of the districts hit hardest by both quakes, on Tuesday when it went missing with six Marines and two Nepali troops on board.
In the district capital Charikot, relief and military helicopters brought people wounded when buildings collapsed and landslides struck in outyling hamlets to an open-air clinic where they were treated on bloodied tarpaulins.
On one flight was Uttav Nepali from Singati village, where there was a large landslide under which authorities believed people were still buried. He said only a handful of houses were left standing.
“I was outside when the quake struck. Bricks and the top floor of my shop fell down and crushed my arm and back,” Nepali said, as he sat among villagers from other communities and waited to find out if he was headed to Kathmandu for treatment.
The helicopters alternated between evacuating and helping find the Marine Corps UH-1Y “Huey” helicopter, which lost radio contact after its crew was heard talking about fuel problems.
A Nepali military official said it appeared the helicopter might have come down in one of the rivers that snake through valleys in Dolakha district east of the capital, Kathmandu.
HUNDREDS SEARCHING FOR HELICOPTER
Six other helicopters joined hundreds of ground troops in the search for the missing aircraft.
“The info we have is that it is down in one of the rivers, but none of the choppers has seen it yet,” Major Rajan Dahal, second-in-command of the Barda Bahadur Battalion, told Reuters in Charikot.
“There are 400-plus of our ground troops looking for it also. By this evening, we might get it,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Marines said there had been no confirmed sightings of the helicopter and that she did not have information that it had landed in a river. She said relief operations were ongoing but diminished while the search was on.
“Primarily we want to make sure that we get all our service members and the Nepalese service members home safely. That is primarily where the focus has been today,” public affairs officer Cassandra Gesecki said.
Nepal Home Ministry official Laxmi Prasad Dahal said he feared the search was diverting resources from relief and rescue operations.
“The work of sending relief and rescuing the injured people to hospitals has been delayed due to this,” he told Reuters.
Tuesday’s 7.3 quake killed 67 people and destroyed many houses. Charikot, about 75 km (45 miles) east of Kathmandu, was one of the hardest-hit areas.
Most of the fatalities reported from Tuesday’s quake were in towns and villages like Charikot, which were only just beginning to pick up the pieces from last month’s quake.
“LOOKS LIKE A GRAVEYARD”
Tuesday’s quake and subsequent aftershocks forced many panic-stricken Nepalis to spend yet another night outdoors in makeshift tents and relief camps.
Dahal said there were 55 dead in Dolakha.
“It looks like a graveyard here,” Aula Bahadur Ale, the assistant administrator of the district, said.
“Even those houses that have not been flattened have developed cracks. People are too afraid to go into them. We are still feeling the aftershocks that makes people terrified.”
A police official in Kathmandu said 1,928 people had been injured in Tuesday’s quake, which also killed 17 people in neighbouring India.
The April quake destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, including many ancient temples, and triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 18 climbers and cut short the climbing season on the world’s tallest peak.
The tremors have left areas of Nepal perilously unstable, leading to fears of more landslides, especially when seasonal monsoon rains begin to fall in the coming weeks.
In Kathmandu, most open spaces were occupied by residents who set up yellow, blue and white tarpaulin sheets. Sita Gurung said her newly built house had escaped damage but she still did not want to go back.
“How can I take risk and stay in? Every one has come out and is living in the open,” Gurung said.
“I’d better join them and stay safe.”