Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"All Well at Gangtok - Final Update - Bit by bit account of the event"

Dr Avi Kumar Bansal

Dear All,
At the outset, my deep acknowledgements and thanks for all the blessings and wishes showered by all for our safety through the event.
I further thought I must share the nightmarish experience, bit by bit, that we went through.
This earthquake was of magnitude 6.9 with its epicenter 60 Kms north of Gangtok in North Sikkim. If we remember, the earthquake which had devastated Bhuj in Gujarat in 2001 was of the same magnitude. To make things worse it had been heavily raining in Sikkim which is unusual for this time in the year for this region, which was resulting in landslides at places.
The STO Sikkim Dr.Dorjee, Dr.Taufique and myself were in Manipal Medical College (MMC), located 10-14 kms from Gangtok and on another hilltop, the whole day on 18th September 2011. We were overseeing the near-perfect preparations for the Zonal Task Force Workshop done by Dr.Tewari (HOD and Prof, TB&Chest Deptt, MMC), Dr.Dorjee and Dr.Toufique the whole day. At around six p.m. after having ensured all preparations in place Dr.Dorjee, Dr.Toufique and myself started to depart for Gangtok as we had to come back to receive DDG and the rest of the CTD team at 10.00 p.m. who had started their journey from Bagdogra for Gangtok (an extremely wonderful 120 Km drive by the riverside of Teesta all through out).
As we boarded our vehicle (a Scorpio Jeep) and the driver had just started the engine, the vehicle all of a sudden, started swaying violently. It was felt that the vehicle was being tossed in the air, off from the ground by at least half a feet. On one side of the road was a steep fall off the hill and on the other side was the five-six storeyed building of the college. Everybody in the jeep thought that some severe problem had developed with the jeep and that the engine was going to explode. While the driver was being asked to switch off the engine, we realized that the vehicle could go down the slope and at the same moment Dr.Toufique recognized that the problem was not the jeep and screamed to get out of the vehicle and run for cover. At the same time all the lights went off. As we jumped from the jeep, I saw a sight which left me completely bewildered at the power of the forces of nature. The huge building of the college was swaying like____ (I don’t know) and a nearby hill (visible right in front) was shaking. Standing right underneath the building I started saying my prayers and was frozen for a moment, thinking I would run towards the other side from where the building would fall. Toufique had been shouting to follow him to an open space on the other side of the building. During all this panic while we could search for an open space the quake stopped. Panic had set in but fortunately no damage, to life or property, had happened in the college. Once we realized what had happened, our nerves had settled down and ensured that no damage had happened nearby, thoughts of safety of all the participants of the ZTF workshop travelling to Gangtok crossed our minds. But as happens usually, the emergency services get crippled first in an emergency, the mobiles were off, the electricity was gone and all contact systems had gone for a toss.  Battery power became a precious commodity.
I personally felt that the quake had occurred for more than a minute (as against 48 seconds reported on television). So many events happened in this short time.
The STO decided to move to Gangtok form where there could be some possibility of getting information on the event and whereabouts of the participants who were in all probability could have been trapped on the roads. The way back was also eerie with huge rocks having fallen on the road. In Gangtok the whole city had taken to the roads but again fortunately no damage had happened to lives and property except for buildings having developed huge cracks and some of them having tilted too. Reaching back some communication could be established and it was learnt that DDG and the whole CTD team alongwith the NE consultants were trapped between two landslides at a town Mahelli. I could get to speak to DDG only 4-5 hours after the quake. No whereabouts of a few participants were known. Some of them had started their journey back to Bagdogra.
The road from Gangtok to Bagdogra had closed due to landslides at various places. God was kind and did not let rains come for 4-5 hours post the quake which let people be on the streets and withstand the two aftershocks. The whole night Dr.Dorjee and Taufique spent ascertaining the whereabouts of other people, arranging for accommodation for the workshop participants as and where possible. DDG and others with him could be accommodated in Mahelli town by the efforts of the CMO of the district there. 
With rains returning at 11.00 p.m. the people had a hard time balancing between shelter and the aftershocks. The entire Gangtok spent two nights on the streets for the fear of the quake coming back. 
The morning thereafter DDG and others could take a route to Bagdogra via Darjeeling and reach safely. Whereabouts of all participants were ascertained by Dr.Dorjee and advised/helped suitably. Dr.Behera, Dr.S.K.Sharma and Dr. Sinha (Asstt. Prof. AIIMS), who were in Gangtok since Saturday, were met in the morning and advised to leave on the next day, once the roads were properly cleared.
The whole event was indeed terrible but I left the place with my Belief in GOD only further higher, since clearly the damage that had occurred was definitely much-much lesser looking at the magnitude of the quake.
But above all what moved me were a few acts of great character, which perhaps help us to tide over such periods of crises. It is rightly said that the character is truly revealed during adversities. 
The first I would say was the whole citizenry of Gangtok which were astonishingly calm and composed during the crisis. Not a single case of stampede, theft or any mis-adventure was reported anywhere. The people were helping themselves and also others, whether they were people caught in traffic or their older citizens, the women and the children. 
The second was the administration, local and central, which swung into action immediately. Electricity was restored in 6-8 hours, the roads were opened by afternoon the next day, relief was dispatched within 1-2 hours and the law & order being completely maintained.
The third was the STO Sikkim who had completely abandoned his family (very much in distress) to be with us the whole night and arranging and ascertaining for the security of the workshop participants. The anger was visible in his daughter’s eyes when we could meet her the next day. But she can be proud of her father who left his self aside to help others in this moment of crisis. 
And the fourth was none other than our Dr.Toufique who inspite of all nervousness and distress decided not to leave the place till all the workshop participants had reached safely and further to stay back in Gangtok in case there is a recurrence of the quake and be there for the people of Sikkim. Dr. Toufique left only once the situation had returned to normal in Gangtok.
Thanking one and all, once again and sincerely praying for all those who have been affected by the quake.   
With Regards

Dr Avi Kumar Bansal is one of the National level Consultants of the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP) of India. Recently he visited Gangtok to participate in a regional event of RNTCP and eye witnessed the devastating earthquake while traveling on the hilly roads. He expressed his feeling in a language that came from the bottom of his heart and shared with his colleagues in RNTCP. Dr Avi has given permission to Universal Health to post his write-up in the blog that describes the dreadful natural calamity  second by second exactly the way we watch in a movie.

Thank you Doctor for your great contribution.

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