Israeli aid plane takes off for Nepal as quake death toll climbs

Advance search and rescue team to make preparations ahead of larger aid shipment, after nearly 1,400 killed in massive earthquake

Volunteers help remove debris of a building that collapsed at Durbar Square, after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Niranjan Shrestha)
Volunteers help remove debris of a building that collapsed at Durbar Square, after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Niranjan Shrestha)

An Israeli plane carrying an advance search and rescue team and emergency medical supplies took off for Nepal early Sunday morning, as the death toll in the wake of a massive earthquake that shook the region climbed toward 1,400, officials said.

The Israel Defense Forces plane carrying seven search and rescue crew members and supplies took off just after midnight, Israel’s Army Radio reported. A larger army plane carrying more rescuers and supplies is expected to leave for Nepal on Sunday afternoon.

The magnitude 7.8 quake struck Nepal before noon and was most severely felt in the capital and the densely populated Kathmandu Valley, where it toppled buildings and triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest.

At least 1,394 people were confirmed dead after the temblor, inspector Yuvraj Khadka of Nepal’s national police force said, adding that the death toll is expected to continue rising as aftershocks persisted through the night.

A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the advance team “will land near the affected zone and make its preparations until it becomes possible to land in Nepal”.

Besides offering aid to Nepal, the delegation will also provide Israelis “the means necessary to return to Israel”, the statement added.

Israel’s emergency medical service also announced it would be sending a delegation of paramedics and doctors to Nepal to provide care for both locals and Israelis there.

A statement from Magen David Adom said an aircraft from Israel with equipment and professionals would depart early Sunday to provide immediate help and set up base for further delegations.

Volunteers carry the body of a victim on a stretcher, recovered from the debris of a building that collapsed after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/ Niranjan Shrestha)
Volunteers carry the body of a victim on a stretcher, recovered from the debris of a building that collapsed after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/ Niranjan Shrestha)

There were no known Israeli fatalities in the quake in the hours immediately after the disaster, Foreign Ministry Director General Nissim Ben-Sheetrit told reporters at a press conference, but the ministry was working to get in touch with Israelis in Nepal who were out of communication.

One Israeli was reported by his father to have been injured in his legs, and he was being treated at the local Chabad House.

“We are trying to locate Israelis who are disconnected from their families,” he said. According to Ynet, 200 Israelis were out of contact in Nepal the quake hit near the capital of Kathmandu.

Jerusalem was also planning to airlift surrogate mothers bearing Israeli babies to safety, he said. Nepal is a popular destination for Israeli couples to hire surrogates, and Ynet reported that there were dozens of Israeli couples in the country Saturday with at least 24 newborns.

Israeli humanitarian aid group IsraAID also launched an online appeal to raise emergency relief funds for Nepal in the wake of the tremblor, and said it had a disaster team ready to deploy.

The Israeli embassy in Kathmandu opened a situation room and was working to locate Israelis traveling in the country, which is also a popular destination for backpackers.

Volunteers help with rescue work at the site of a building that collapsed after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25, 2015. (Photo credit: AP/ Niranjan Shrestha)
Volunteers help with rescue work at the site of a building that collapsed after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25, 2015. (Photo credit: AP/ Niranjan Shrestha)

The building of the Israeli embassy in Kathmandu sustained some damage and embassy staff were operating a situation room from the yard, the Foreign Ministry said, adding that staff were out on foot looking for injured Israelis since roads are blocked.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala Saturday night and promised medical assistance and aid to finding and rescuing victims after the quake.

He and President Reuven Rivlin also sent their condolences to Nepal over the disaster.

“Our thoughts and hearts go out to the people of Nepal dealing with this awful disaster, and with our loved ones who are in distress. The State of Israel is reaching out to help the search and rescue of the many victims.”

Tens of thousands of people were spending the night in the open under a chilly and thunderous sky after the powerful tremor devastated Nepal.

Officials said the quake was the worst tremor to hit the poor South Asian nation in over 80 years. It was strong enough to be felt all across the northern part of neighboring India, Bangladesh, Tibet and Pakistan, where a total of 50 people died.

As Nepal trembled, residents fled homes and buildings in panic. Walls tumbled, trees swayed, power lines came crashing down and large cracks opened up on streets and walls. Clouds of dust began to swirl all around.

Within hours of the quake, hospitals had filled up with hundreds of injured people. With organized relief and rescue lacking, many survivors were brought to hospitals by friends and relatives in motorized rickshaws, flatbed trucks and cars. Residents used their bare hands, crowbars and other tools to dig through rubble and rescue survivors.

The father of an Israeli said to have been injured told Ynet that he could not reach his son because of poor reception but knew that he was at Chabad House in Kathmandu with deep cuts on his legs and was awaiting transfer to a hospital.

Israeli travelers at the Kathmandu Chabad House after a major earthquake on Saturday April 25, 2014. (screen capture: Channel 2)
Israeli travelers at the Kathmandu Chabad House after a major earthquake on Saturday April 25, 2014. (screen capture: Channel 2)

A person who answered the phone at the Chabad House told Ynet that there was “total chaos” in the house as Israelis congregated there, some with minor injuries. According to the report, they were being treated by other Israelis who trained as IDF medics during their military service.

Other countries and international aid groups rushed to respond Saturday to the massive earthquake in Nepal as aftershocks and severed communications hampered rescue efforts.

“We do not yet know the scope of the damage, but this could be one of the deadliest and most devastating earthquakes since the 1934 tremor which devastated Nepal and Bihar,” said Jagan Chapagain, Asia/Pacific director of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The United States and the European Union were among those to pledge assistance to the government of Nepal, as messages of support poured in from world leaders including China’s Xi Jinping, France’s Francois Hollande, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The IFRC said it was extremely concerned about the fate of rural villages close to the epicenter of the quake, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the capital Kathmandu.

“Roads have been damaged or blocked by landslides and communication lines are down preventing us from reaching local Red Cross branches to get accurate information,” said Chapagain in a statement.

“We anticipate that there will be considerable destruction and loss of life.”

Other aid organizations responding to the emergency also struggled to assess the needs with communications cut off around the Himalayan nation.

“Communication is currently very difficult. Telephone lines are down and the electricity has been cut off making charging mobile phones difficult,” said Cecilia Keizer, Oxfam country director in Nepal.

“People are gathered in their thousands in open spaces and are scared as there have been several aftershocks,” she added.

French aid group Action Against Hunger (ACF) said in a statement its teams in Nepal “were on their way to the affected areas to assess the damage and the needs”.

Nations around world have reacted to the deadly 7.8 magnitude quake that rocked Nepal.

The United States is sending a disaster response team and has authorised an initial $1 million in aid to address immediate needs, the US Agency for International Development said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was working closely with the government of Nepal to provide assistance.

“To the people in Nepal and the region affected by this tragedy we send our heartfelt sympathies,” he said.

“The United States stands with you during this difficult time.”

The European Union also said its humanitarian experts were heading to the crisis areas.

“The full extent of the casualties and damage is still unknown but reports indicate they will likely be high, both in terms of loss of life, injuries and damage to cultural heritage,” an EU statement said.

Charity Christian Aid launched an appeal for funds and said it was working with partner agencies to reach the worst hit areas.

“It’s clear from what has emerged so far that there is an urgent need for emergency shelters, food and clean drinking water, warm clothing blankets and hygiene kits,” said the group’s regional emergency manager Ram Kishan in a statement.

More than two dozen aftershocks jolted the area after the first quake, which struck just before noon. At the time, Shrish Vaidya, who runs an advertising agency, was in his two-story house outside the capital Kathmandu with his parents.

“It is hard to describe. The house was shaking like crazy. We ran out and it seemed like the road was heaving up and down,” Vaidya, 46, told The Associated Press. “I don’t remember anything like this before. Even my parents can’t remember anything this bad.”

Once the first shaking stopped, Vaidya thought his family could return indoors by evening. But the jolts kept coming, and they felt safer outdoors.

“It’s cold and windy so we are all sitting in the car listening to the news on FM radio,” he said. “The experts are saying it’s still not safe to go back inside. No one can predict how big the next aftershock will be.”

So the family ate dinner outside with the headlights of their car providing light. Vaidya was grateful his wife and 10-year-old son were on holiday in the US.

In his largely affluent neighborhood of low-rise, sturdy homes in suburban Kathmandu the damage was relatively light. In other parts of the city where the buildings are older and poorly built people were not as lucky.

Forecasts called for rain and thunder showers later Saturday and Sunday and the temperatures were in the mid-50s (14 Celsius), cold enough to make camping outside uncomfortable.

Thousands of people were spending the night at Tudikhel, a vast open ground in the middle of Kathmandu, just next to the old city that is lined with historic buildings and narrow lanes. Now it is in ruins.

People lay on plastic sheets or cardboard boxes, wrapped in blankets. Mothers kept their children warm; some lit fire with whatever wood they could find. Most were eating instant noodles and cookies.

Deepak Rauniar, a shop worker who was there with his friends, said: “We are too scared to go back to our apartment. It is surrounded closely by houses, most of them old. The houses could collapse while we are still sleeping.”

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who was attending a summit in Jakarta, tried to rush back home but made it as far as Bangkok where his connecting flight to Kathmandu was canceled because the capital’s international airport was shut down for commercial flights.

Indian Air Force planes were allowed to bring in 43 tons of relief material, including tents and foods, and nearly 200 rescuers, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said. The planes were returning to New Delhi with Indian nationals who were stranded in Kathmandu. India’s state-run Air India announced that it would begin relief flights to the Nepalese capital Sunday.

Hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley were overcrowded, running out of room for storing dead bodies and running out of emergency supplies, the United Nations said in a statement.

“The reports of the devastation are still coming in and the numbers of people killed, injured and affected by this earthquake continue to rise,” UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said. “It is clear that very many lives have been lost. There has also been significant damage to Nepal’s irreplaceable cultural heritage.”

While the extent of the damage and the scale of the disaster were yet to be known, the quake will likely put a huge strain on the resources of this poor country best known for Everest, the highest mountain in the world, and its rich Hindu culture. The economy of Nepal, a nation of 27.8 million people, relies heavily on tourism, principally trekking and Himalayan mountain climbing.

A mountaineering guide, Ang Tshering, said an avalanche swept the face of Mt. Everest after the earthquake, and government officials said at least 10 climbers were killed and 30 injured. Their nationalities were not immediately known.

Carsten Lillelund Pedersen, a Dane who was climbing the Everest with a Belgian, Jelle Veyt, said on his Facebook page that they were at Khumbu Icefall , a rugged area of collapsed ice and snow close to base camp at altitude 5,000 meters (16,500 feet), when the earthquake hit.

“Right now, it is pretty chaotic and we try to help those injured,” Pedersen wrote in an email to Danish news agency Ritzau.

Norwegian climber Teodor Glomnes Johansen told a newspaper in Norway that people at base camp were working on saving lives.

“All those who are unharmed organize help with the rescue efforts. Men, women and Sherpas are working side by side. The job right now is to assist the doctors in the camp here,” Glomnes Johansen told Norway’s VG newspaper.

The US Geological Survey put the magnitude of the quake at 7.8. It said the quake hit at 11:56 a.m. local time (0611 GMT) at Lamjung, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Kathmandu. Its depth was only 11 kilometers (7 miles), the largest shallow quake since the 8.2 temblor off the coast of Chile on April 1, 2014.

The shallower the quake the more destructive power it carries.

A magnitude 7 quake is capable of widespread and heavy damage while an 8 magnitude quake can cause tremendous damage. This means Saturday’s quake — with the same magnitude as the one that hit San Francisco in 1906 — was about 16 times more powerful than the 7.0 quake that devastated Haiti in 2010.

The quake occurred at the boundary between the two pieces, or plates, of Earth’s crust, one of which supports India to the south and the other Eurasia to the north. The Indian plate is moving at 45 millimeters (1.7 inches) a year under the Eurasian plate, and this results in earthquakes once every 500 year on an average, said Marin Clark, a geophysicist at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

So the quake was “definitely not a surprise,” she said. Over millions of years, such quakes have led to the uplift of the Himalayas. Nepal suffered its worst recorded earthquake in 1934, which measured 8.0 and all but destroyed the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan.

The power of Saturday’s tremors brought down several buildings in the center of the capital, the ancient Old Kathmandu, including centuries-old temples and towers.

Among them was the nine-story Dharahara Tower, one of Kathmandu’s landmarks built by Nepal’s royal rulers as a watchtower in the 1800s and a UNESCO-recognized historical monument. It was reduced to rubble and there were reports of people trapped underneath.

Hundreds of people buy tickets on weekends to go up to the viewing platform on the eighth story, but it was not clear how many were up there when the tower collapsed. Video footage showed people digging through the rubble of the tower, looking for survivors.

The Kathmandu Valley is listed as a World Heritage site and is a collection of seven locations around Nepal’s capital that reflect the country’s rich religious history. The Buddhist stupas, public squares and Hindu temples are some of the most well-known sites in Kathmandu, and now some of the most deeply mourned.

The head of the UN cultural agency, Irina Bokova, said in a statement that UNESCO was ready to help Nepal rebuild from “extensive damage, including to historic monuments and buildings of the Kathmandu Valley.”

Nepali journalist and author Shiwani Neupane tweeted: “The sadness is sinking in. We have lost our temples, our history, the places we grew up.”

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