On 12 May 2015, a US Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom helicopter on a rescue mission landed in Singati of Dolakha district three hours after a 7.3M aftershock shook the region. Singati was just 5km from the epicentre, and the shaking destroyed many buildings still standing after the 25 April earthquake. Landslides and rockfalls buried a distribution centre for relief supplies, and 50 people were killed that day in Singati alone.
The helicopter landed in a cornfield at 2:45pm, picked up five wounded villagers and took off for the return trip to Kathmandu. It lost radio contact with air traffic control and could not be located until 16 May, when it was spotted at 3,300m on a ridge north of Kalinchok.
Six American Marines, two Nepal Army soldiers and five wounded civilians from Singati were killed: Capt Dustin R Lukasiewicz(pic top) and Capt Christopher L Norgren, Sgt Ward Johnson IV, Sgt Eric M Seaman, Cpl Sara A Medina and Lance Cpl Jacob A Hug. The Nepali soldiers were Tapendra Rawal and Basant Titara. The wounded civilians were only identified a month later, after DNA analysis of their remains: Shiva Bahadur Khatri, Loka Bahadur Khatri, Yam Bahadur Katawal, Dhruba Katawal and Sabitri Shivakoti. A USMC inquiry found that the Okinawa-based helicopter, part of a six-aircraft fleet belonging to Operation Sahayogi Haat, had taken a direct route back to Kathmandu from Singati and en route hit a mountain covered in cloud.
One year later, on 12 May 2016 I returned to Singati. Among the people I met there was Bishal Shivakoti (see his account below) and I showed him some photographs on my laptop. In one of them there is a tall young man in a ‘I Love Nepal’ t-shirt and flipflops, hands and feet covered in dust. He looks fatigued and is gazing intensely at the camera. Behind him is a crowd of people, some holding on to their caps to prevent them from flying off due to the helicopter’s rotor wash. One man was covering his ears to muffle the roar of the engines. The injured and their families look on anxiously.
I asked Bishal if he recognised the man standing. He brought the monitor closer and looked carefully, and his face lit up: “That’s me.” He looked at the picture again, and recognised people in the crowd: “That is Bishnu, that is grandmother, this is Maila … so that is what I looked like that day.”
Bishal wanted to know when I had taken the photograph. “My mind was not working, I was in shock, I don’t remember you taking pictures that day,” he said.
I told him it wasn’t me who had taken the photograph, but a young woman named Sara A Medina. I showed him a photograph of Medina that I had downloaded from the Internet: friendly-looking, with short hair, wearing camouflage fatigues.
“She looks Japanese, very young,” Bishal said, “I didn’t notice her taking pictures. The helicopter didn’t stay long.
I took Bishal aside and told him softly: “That photograph of you was the last one she took in her life. She was in the helicopter that crashed five minutes after it took off. Her camera was found in the burnt-out wreckage.”
Bishal clutched his hair with both hands, and head down, he took a long breath. “Oh my god,” he said, “I am so unlucky, she died after snapping my photo. She was so young.”
When Bishal looked up, he had tears in his eyes.
It was the morning of 12 May 2015 and I was rummaging through the ruins of my house in Singati that had been destroyed in the 25 April earthquake. I was salvaging what timber and bricks I could use for a temporary shelter. Suddenly the ground started shaking, and I leapt out into the garden.
Buildings were collapsing, the mountains were coming down all around us with a frightening roar, and clouds of brown dust billowed in the sky. Many of the buildings in the market by the road that had been damaged in the previous earthquake had all fallen down.
I helped dig out a neighbour’s mother, and with the help of some policemen we pulled out alive two other people from the ruins of collapsed buildings in Chitre. Near the bridge over the Tama Kosi, a four-storey block had come down, trapping 20 people. I heard that up the road in Kattike a team that was distributing relief material to the survivors of the previous earthquake was itself hit by a huge rockfall, burying at least 40 people.
The ground still shook from time to time, sending more boulders the size of houses crashing down to the river below. I ran back to my house, where the chicken coop had been damaged. I gathered up all our chickens, and had just locked them up again when there was a deafening thud-thud of a helicopter overhead.
It was the biggest helicopter I’d ever seen, a huge grey-coloured thing that came down and landed on a corn terrace. It kicked up a whole lot of dust and the wind sent debris flying around, wounding a few people.
The helicopter kept its engines running, and two Nepal Army soldiers got off. One of them had a rifle and stood by, guarding the landing site. The other young soldier asked me to bring in the seriously wounded so they could be airlifted out. The two people we had helped rescue from Chitre, one of them named Shiva, were nearest to me and we carried them into the helicopter.
My aunt Sabitri Shivakoti had been hit by flying debris that the helicopter threw up when landing, and she was lying on the ground. I assisted her into the helicopter. There were other Nepal Army soldiers from the nearby Laduk unit who had come for the rescue, and they helped out.
I could see the Americans in black helmets walking under the moving rotors, and one of them was talking into a microphone wired to the side of the helicopter. Padam Sherpa from Gyache arrived, carrying the wounded Airam Surel towards the helicopter, but the American signalled to him that the aircraft was already full, and he could be taken on the next trip.
The helicopter took off again with a loud noise and wind like a hurricane, and I ran off to Katike where the rockfall had buried many people, to see if I could help.
Digital package Om Astha Rai, Smriti Basnet and Sahina Shrestha
Two month flashback Ayesha Shakya
Disastrous coverage Kunda Dixit