Air force helicopters flew rescue workers to a remote Himalayan region yesterday in search of survivors of a strong earthquake that killed dozens of people in India, Nepal and Tibet.
Most of the casualties were near the epicenter of Sunday’s magnitude 6.9 quake that bucked roads and knocked down houses in sparsely populated Sikkim State in India, popular with tourists for its Buddhist monasteries and spectacular trekking.
Landslides, rain and fog hampered rescue work for a second day, with high mountain passes to the worst-affected region blocked by rocks and mud. However, a break in the clouds allowed army helicopters to fly a few rescuers to Mangan, a hard-hit small town ringed by snow-capped mountains near the epicenter.
Soldiers found five more bodies in Sikkim yesterday. The quake killed at least 82 people. The Indian government confirmed 50 deaths in Sikkim and 18 in other states. At least seven people died in Nepal and seven more in Tibet.
With soil waterlogged after days of rain, fresh landslides blocked the main access to the state overnight, leaving many of the hundreds of rescue workers deployed from New Delhi unable to reach the worst-hit areas.
Rescue teams backed by army engineers using explosives tried to force their way to the remote epicenter of the quake.
Before the grim search for more victims can even begin, the main challenge is to reach the isolated, mountainous impact zone on the border between Sikkim State and Nepal.
Convoys of vehicles carrying rescue workers, medical teams and emergency supplies left the Sikkim capital Gangtok at daybreak yesterday. However, progress was tortuously slow over the narrow, badly damaged roads more often frequented by groups of adventurous tourists heading for Himalayan trekking trails.
After covering just a short section of the 60km route to the worst-affected districts of Mangan and Sangthan, the convoys came to a complete halt near the town of Phingla, where the path was blocked by a huge rockfall.
As army engineers drilled holes for explosives to try and blow apart the largest boulders, rescuers could only wait in frustration along with distraught locals trying to get through to relatives — unsure whether they were alive or dead.
“I’ve been here for six hours, waiting for the army to clear the road,” said Pema Doma, 37, who has heard nothing from her parents or 16-year-old son in Mangan.
“I’d walk if they would let me,” she said. “The anxiety is killing me. What if he’s screaming for me? What if he’s calling for me and I can’t even hear him?”
Those who did attempt walking around the rockfall were stopped by soldiers.
“I know many shortcuts to reach Mangan, but the army says it’s not safe,” said P. Sherpa, 62, whose son is a student at the North Sikkim Academy, a private school in Mangan. “So all we can do is sit here and stare at the rocks.”
One army official said it could take up to 48 hours to clear the entire stretch of road to the quake epicenter.
Air force officials said food packages and small medical teams with doctors and paramedics had been air-dropped into Mangan and Sangthan.
The death toll from building collapses and landslides in Sikkim stood at 50, but Indian Home Secretary R.K. Singh warned the number could rise as emergency relief workers reached far-flung villages.
Officials said about 300 people had been admitted to hospitals across the state.