For the last 36 hours, assistant commandant Raj Kamal and his team of 45 National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel have been trying to retrieve bodies from a six-storey building which collapsed in the earthquake, at the Shobha Bhagwati bridge in Kathmandu on Saturday. The men work in groups of six, for a couple of hours each.
As Kamal explains the operation, his colleague, Sikandar Yadav, shouts that there is a child’s body under the debris. Yadav is trying to pull out a man’s body. “It appears that the man was trying to run away with the child, who may be about one-and-a-half years old, when the quake hit. I can see the child in his arms,” says Yadav, as he removes the bricks with his bare hands to pull out the bodies.
His teammate, Umesh Singh, helps him cut the concrete slabs with bolt cutters and chipping hammers. After three hours, the NDRF team pulls out the man’s body.
Yadav’s team has retrieved five bodies from the site so far, but feels there could be two more as they found two different slippers. Locals say there were around 100 people in the area when the building collapsed.
Before they began operations, the NDRF team first checked for survivors. “Basically, we drill a hole, and then run the camera through it to detect any person alive,” explains Kamal.
The air is heavy with the stench of rotting bodies. The pace of work is slow, but Kamal knows he cannot be impatient. “I cannot put all of them to work together. It’s heavy work. Our men are working in shifts, when somebody drills the rubble, the others rest,” he says.
The NDRF men have pitched two temporary tents near the location, where they take turns to rest. “We pulled out a woman’s body, she had a bunch of keys clutched in her hands,” says Yadav.
Kamal was also involved in the 2001 Gujarat quake rescue operations. The experience has come in handy today. “We divide the collapsed blocks into squares. Then we take turns to rip open each alternate square. We have to make a vertical approach by going deeper, one by one,” explains Kamal. “We have residents coming to see whether anybody could be alive. We hate to send them back disappointed,” he adds.
“Can you get a photo album for me?” asks Rajesh Lama, a resident of the building, as he looks through the rubble to find his belongings.
Another person, Birendra, is looking for his wife’s body. “She had come here to meet relatives, may be she is there,” he says, pointing to a gap in the rubble. A frying pan, a wall clock and an English speaking course book can be seen in the debris.
“During such incidents, the building falls like a pancake. The top floor becomes the ground floor, so we have to tread cautiously,” says NDRF DG O P Singh, adding that his team landed in Nepal within five hours of the first quake. “We hit the ground running. As soon as our first team arrived, we put them on the job. We cannot afford to lose time,” he says.
Dr Amit Murari, senior medical officer with NDRF, was among the first to arrive. “As soon as we arrived, we were given a briefing by the ambassador here. We were told to undertake rescue operations on a war footing. We were told to treat the disaster as if it had happened to our countrymen. We were told that Nepal is a friend,” he says.