It was a rainy sunday morning on the 18th and since we’d woken up late, we’d nearly put off our plans for sightseeing to Namchi’s Samdruptse and Solophok which is about two and a half hours from my place. We reached Namchi, South Sikkim about midday and spent the rest of the day there. We headed back home to Singtam in the evening when an earthquake of 6.8 richter scale hit our small state of Sikkim at around 6 pm. Ironically, we didnt really feel the quake since we were in the vehicle but we did see many people on the way running out of their homes in panic and several people outdoors along the highway. I assumed that a fight had broken out and we didnt bother to stop by and ask what was happening.
A few kilometres ahead, several vehicles came to a stand still and we had to stop because of the traffic jam. It was then terrified people all around us started talking about a huge earthquake that rocked the entire place and also caused a landslide right in the middle of the road. I could make out from the people’s petrified faces that they were really scared out of their wits and one lady even said that the quake had washed away her small wooden house in a landslide. The drivers of the vehicles ahead of us gathered the men and they ended up removing a small portion of the rocks which allowed us enough leeway to cross the road. We then proceeded our journey while I started frantically dialing our families to ensure they were ok.
Unfortunately, the mobile networks were totally jammed and none of us could get through to anyone. Then out of nowhere, my colleague got through my phone and said that the earthquake was so devastating that couple of buildings in Singtam had buckled down and that some people had succumbed to their deaths and several were injured who were being taken to the nearest hospitals. He also informed that the quake had hit Gangtok equally hard and that the devastation was state-wide.
I sent a silent prayer to god to keep our families safe and tried calling them again and again but to no avail. That was perhaps the darkest moment of our lives, when we didnt know if our loved ones were safe or not. It was only after about half an hour later that our phones started working and we talked with our families in Gangtok and were reassured that they were safe.
It was then that my brother said that while the major earthquake had passed, yet there were tremors still underway and that they were headed towards the nearest open space. I later came to know that many of them ended up sleeping in their vehicles through the night for fear of a similar earthquake hitting our homes all over again.
In the meantime, we had nearly reached Singtam when we got to know that there was another landslide which blocked the route completely and that we couldnt reach home that night. We didnt know what to do after that and we tried taking an alternative, longer route back to Singtam via Gangtok but we got to know that that route was blocked as well due to another landslide. By that time, it was well past seven and ultimately we decided to go back to Namchi where we could stay at my relatives’ place. So we headed all the way back towards Namchi when halfway back, we passed several vehicles coming back informing us that there was a landslide there too which blocked the way. We considered taking another route via Ravongla but another vehicle passing by informed us that there was a landslide there too. We were trapped and couldnt go backwards or forwards.
We considered the possibility of sleeping in the vehicle when we realized that we were passing by a colleague’s in-laws place. It was already 10 pm when we were banging their doors and asked if we could stay the night. The gracious hosts were kind enough to make room for us and provided us with a comfortable bed for which I still cannot thank them enough. We slept peacefully unaware of several rumours that the aftershock was expected to hit our state soon and possibly that night.
The next morning we woke up to our hosts who had prepared food for us and advised us to leave only by afternoon to ensure that the road block would be opened by then. Word came that the landslide near Singtam had been cleared by midday and we left thanking our hosts profusely, to reach home safely by 1 pm.
On the way back, we saw several rocks loose from the walls, fallen right in the middle of the road. At many points, the rocks completely covered the road and there was hardly enough room to navigate the vehicle from the side. What hit me the most later on was the realization that had any of us travelling been near the landslide when they occurred, we would have either been crushed or skidded off the road into the gorge below the hilly road. Before reaching Singtam, I saw several buildings which had been cracked right from the base and that people had evacuated them. One building in Singtam market had its ground floor completely buckled and the remaining of the bulding titled towards one side.
I also heard of some vehicles falling into the river along the national highway on the road to Gangtok when the earthquake struck and several vehicles being crushed by falling stones on the way. The region that was hit the hardest was North Sikkim where the epicentre of the quake lay and where the death toll rises every day. Given the harsh weather conditions, rescue operations were hindered till yesterday. Today, I could make out the sound of the rescue choppers flying the whole day and army vehicles plying along the national highway, probably for rescue operations.
There was no electricity, water or phone the whole of yesterday. We had no information about the extent of damage caused by the earthquake. Power was restored back today afternoon and so were the phone lines. The first thing I could think of doing after I got back my internet connection was write this post. Water connection is still not restored so we’re shifting buckets of water from a nearby stream. Hopefully, we’d get our water supply back soon and life will restore back to normalcy.
The same cannot be said about the people of North Sikkim who have been affected the most. TV and internet are flooded with images of devastation and I looked on as I saw Karma Paljor of CNN-IBN cover the story from his hometown. I’m sick of listening to debates on TV about how poorly Sikkim is connected to the rest of the country via road or train. Less talk and more action please. If you really want to prove that North-East India is as important to Delhi as the rest of the states, please ensure that you provide us with alternate highways, quick response disaster management teams and educating the people of the state on what to do the next time such disaster strikes.
By the end of it all, I was left wondering about how fickle nature is and how much we humans lie at its mercy. Like my friend Shaliya said, big cities are terrorized by bomb blasts, whereas smaller places by natural disasters. I guess no one is really safe anywhere. While I’m happy that all my family and friends are safe for the moment but none of us here can forget this catastrophe. There’s no trusting life when Nature is on its own trip. Remembering the victims, the injured and the traumatized. May God keep all of you safe.