Casey Welch was in a shuttle van and thought a vehicle had rear-ended them. Haley Dallas was in a store and, terrified, ducked under a table.
Taylor Graham, sick with fever in Sikkim, a region of India in the Himalayas, ran down from the fourth floor and out of the building he was in. Kurt Blair was in Tibet, at Mount Everest’s advanced base camp, when avalanches rumbled down the surrounding mountains.
Several Durangoans felt the earthquake – a 7.8-magnitude monster whose epicenter was northeast of Kathmandu – that devastated Nepal and rocked at least three other countries April 25. (A 7.3-magnitude aftershock Tuesday did even further damage.) Durangoans tend to love the mountains, and many are drawn each spring and fall to the Himalayas, the highest mountains on Earth. Here are first-hand accounts from several locals who felt the quake that killed more than 8,000 people:
“I turned around to see who hit us, and that’s when hell broke loose,” Welch said. “The van just started violently rocking.”
Welch was touring Kathmandu, and later that day was to begin a mission with Global Dental Relief, an organization heavily influenced by Durango dentist Tom Grams, who was killed by religious extremists in Afghanistan in 2010. Welch is a Durango dental hygienist who works for Dr. Mason Miner.
She posed for a photo at Patan Durbar Square just before noon, just as the group’s Nepali guide, Karma Sherpa, was telling them to stay on schedule. About 10 minutes later, the building behind her in the photo had become a pile of bricks.
The earthquake felt like being on a lifeboat on water, with everything moving and undulating, she said. Welch looked out of the van to her left and saw a wall collapse. Scooters and motorcyclists tumbled to the ground. She heard the “snap, pop” as electrical lines fell. She noticed the top of a stupa to her left crumble off, the attached prayer flags creating a snarl.
People poured from buildings onto the streets. Howling dogs and screaming cats and monkeys created a cacophony.
The road became gridlocked, so the group left the van, and Sherpa marched them single file for 2 kilometers back to the guest house. They spent the night outside.
She and others there to help the dental clinic considered staying in Kathmandu to help in search and medical efforts. But the U.S. Embassy was trying to hustle U.S. citizens out of the country, and Welch was told to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, the volunteers had time to pass out goodies to 250 orphans that attend classes at the combined dental clinic/school: berets, colored pencils, games, whistles, harmonicas and a lot of candy.
“Not one kid took a bite until everyone was served,” Welch said. “And that made me cry. ... I just will never forget that. That was very spiritual to me, to see how the kids were.”
Her first flight landed in Qatar, the world’s wealthiest place per capita because of its oil production. People wore gold and perfume. There was food everywhere.
“It just felt wrong,” she said. “There was a moment of clarity when you really realize your privilege, your station in life. It felt like going to another universe.”
Those who want to help Global Dental Relief rebuild the clinic can make a donation online: http://bit.ly/1KK6KHN.
The 2013 Durango High School graduate is taking a year off from the University of Southern California to travel. She had just done a 10-day trek in the Annapurna area with another DHS grad, Isaiah Boyle-Branch, who remained in the mountains.
Dallas was picking out rice wine in a run-down shop in the Thamel district. She and some Australian friends were headed to a music festival just outside Kathmandu, where they’d camp for three days.
“All of a sudden the ground starts to shake,” Dallas recalled Monday via phone from Los Angeles. “We kind of just huddled together, ducked under a table and waited out the ride.”
Outside, the scene was striking. Motorbikes were toppled, brick walls and parts of buildings had collapsed, and items in stores had fallen and broken.
“At first, it’s totally quiet,” Dallas said. “Then, people started running and screaming.”
They went to a more open area, and after a few hours decided the best course of action was to go to the festival site; they had nowhere to stay in Kathmandu, they knew they could camp out for several days, and friends were already there. She also managed to get a quick text to her mother.
“From a parent’s perspective, it was just ‘get her out of Nepal,’” said her mother, Donna Dallas, rattled by the thought of her 19-year-old in the quake. She purchased a flight out of Kathmandu for Haley.
After a couple of days at the festival site, Dallas ended up back in the city, and she stayed in the U.S. Embassy, camped out under a desk on a yoga mat in someone’s office. She was able to fly to Delhi, India, on May 1, arriving at 2 a.m.
She had been worried about him for several days, but Branch-Boyle was fine, as it turned out, having not even felt the earthquake.
The 2012 DHS graduate, now a junior at Ithaca College in New York state, was in Gangtok, the mountainous capital of Sikkim, working on a documentary about hydroelectric projects and their effects on the local population.
He was sick and running a high temperature, most likely from Dengue fever, he said in an email Monday.
“It certainly took a moment to realize what was happening,” said Graham, the son of Scott and Susan Graham. “I knew I didn’t want to be on the fourth floor of an old building, so I ran into the hallway and down the stairs to the street, which was difficult because the earthquake knocked the power out and it was pitch black.”
In his blog, he said, “I stood in the street in my underwear, gasping and shivering. My legs felt unsteady – as if I was taking my first steps on land after a long voyage at sea.”
In an attempt to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to honor Rob Blair, his recently deceased father, Kurt Blair had reached advanced base camp at 21,000 feet on the Tibetan, or north, side of Mount Everest.
His Summit Climb team had just begun lunch when the tent and floor started shaking.
“We could hear avalanches coming down off the north col, and it was a lot of rumbling,” Blair said Wednesday, two days after he’d returned to Durango. “It was pretty dramatic.”
He assumed the avalanches caused the rumbling, but soon realized it was the other way around. In little bits, those on the north side of Everest realized the extent of the damage, and the Nepali Sherpas on their teams used whatever communication devices were available to check on their families.
A day later, Chinese authorities “basically told” climbers to return to lower base camp. The expeditions were later canceled. Getting back home was tricky, with the road through Tibet to Kathmandu closed by landslides. Ultimately they drove to Lhasa, Tibet, then flew back to Kathmandu.
Rob Blair, a longtime geology professor at Fort Lewis College, died Feb. 26 while cross country skiing at Vallecito Reservoir. Kurt Blair had planned to spread some of his father’s ashes on Everest’s summit. The Chinese said they will honor his climbing permit for three years.
Although disappointed at not getting a chance at scaling the world’s highest peak, he was philosophical.
“The inconvenience of our trip completely pales before all the human tragedy in Nepal,” Blair said. “I kind of hate to talk about any disappointment I might have because it’s irrelevant in the larger scheme.
“I can go back.”