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Sikkim earthquake: The long night after

Death toll crosses 70,many missing,even as relief work continues through rain,landslides.

Written by Madhuparna Das | Gangtok |
September 20, 2011 1:23:40 am

The death toll in the 6.9-earthquake that convulsed Sikkim last night crossed 70 this evening as Army columns and paramilitary personnel battled torrential rain,mist and landslides that cut off affected areas and stalled relief and rescue work.

North and East Sikkim are the worst affected,where major stretches remain disconnected from Gangtok. Even where diggers and heavy earth movers barrelled their way through,rescue teams had a trying time reaching out to those trapped in the rubble. Until late tonight,medical teams were trying to reach Mangan,the spot closest to the epicentre of the quake. This despite the fact that the road to Mangan was cleared by late afternoon. Elsewhere,boulders and debris mark what were once roads.

Sikkim alone accounted for 41 deaths,most of them in the North District and in towns and villages like Rangpo,Dikchu,Singtam and Chungthang located along the Teesta river,officials said.

Officials said that when the quake struck last evening,there were several vehicles on the Gangtok-Mangan route and many of these could have been “tossed off the road” or crushed under moving mountains of debris. “We have reports of several people missing but can only act on these once the road is restored,” said an official. As many as 22 people travelling in a bus are reported missing since last evening in north Sikkim.

As dusk descended over the hills today,marking 24 hours of the quake,panic returned to haunt residents. At Rongpo,an hour’s drive from Gangtok,the commercial hub was shut down and people were huddled under the cloud-covered sky. “There are fears that the quake may return tonight as well. We are not taking any chances and have come out in the open. How long we will be able to stand out we don’t know,but when we return to our homes,there is a strange feeling that’s overpowering many,” said a resident.

As many as 105 Army columns,with an estimated 5,000 personnel,have moved into the affected areas. Their primary objective is to restore road,telecom and power links. Colonel Om Prakash,an Army spokesman,said as many as 20 blockades had been cleared on National Highway 3,linking Siliguri to Gangtok. But airdropping operations had to be abandoned because of bad weather — about 2000 packets of dry food and matchboxes sat at Bagdogra airport. Electricity and telecom links were partially restored in Gangtok.

In the city’s outskirts,labourers from many project worksites have fled their posts and moved to Gangtok where several families have pitched tents in open spaces where they prepared to spend a second night.

Said Gopal Chhetri,Superintendent of a pharmacy college hostel,“Himalayan Home,” about 35 km from Gangtok: “I had a full house till yesterday with 280 student boarders. Today,I am left with just 60,many of them are trying to leave and go home.” These included Prasanta Sinha,a student form Bankura; Kamalendu Bagchi form Tripura and Dip,a second-year student. All stood by the highway trying to hitch a ride to Siliguri and home. Chhetri said: “As long as all the students don’t leave,I can’t. It’s a nightmare to live in rooms with all the walls cracked.” One of his students,Sandipan Banerjee,was killed when the roof caved in.

One of his cousins,Chiranjit Sinha,flew today to collect the body. On the flight here,he ran into West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who also left for Siliguri and Darjeeling today. She assured his family of all help.

At Singtam,the fire station is the new shelter. Vandana Chhetri,wife of D K Chhetri,a fire brigade havildar,is fighting the trauma. “It is terrible to stare at the cracks on the walls and ignore the fear,” said Vandana. Public address announcements urging people to be alert has added to the panic. A three-storied building behind the fire station collapsed yesterday injuring many.

In next door West Bengal,the death toll until late tonight was eight,most from Darjeeling where,according to preliminary estimates,as many as 70% of the buildings had developed cracks. The Rajbari in Darjeeling,a landmark,has developed wide cracks while the ceiling in two rooms of the District Magistrate’s office collapsed. Because it was a Sunday,there were no injuries. The Darjeeling Planter’s Club,yet another landmark in the city,was scarred with cracks.

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling toured the quake-hit areas in and around the capital town to assess

damage. He announced an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the kin of the deceased,Rs 50,000 for those

grievously injured and Rs 25,000 for those with minor injuries. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced Rs 2

lakh as ex-gratia to next of kin of those killed in the earthquake and Rs 1 lakh each for those seriously injured.

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