On the day Huntsville residents Kelly Hammond and Brandy Van Gelder boarded a plane to Nepal they were excited about the adventure that lay before them. With plans to climb to the base of Mount Everest on a charity expedition, they knew they would face adversity, what they didn’t expect was that adversity would take place not on the mountain, but in the capital city of Kathmandu.
Hammond and Van Gelder touched down in Kathmandu just hours before an earthquake measuring an astounding 7.8 in its magnitude struck the village of Barpak, around 180 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu. Known locally as the Gorkha earthquake, it killed more than 8,000 people and injured upwards of 19,000. It has been labelled the worst natural disaster in Nepalese history since the 1934 earthquake that killed 10,600 people.
With time to kill before travelling to Everest, Hammond and Van Gelder prepared to take a tour of Kathmandu’s plethora of monuments and attractions. When their tour was abruptly cancelled, Hammond and Van Gelder decided to take their own tour of the city.
Before the earthquake hit Hammond and Van Gelder were in Kathmandu’s iconic Thamel Market, a tourist mecca replete with narrow alleyways, shops and vendors that are crammed together like sardines. Casually browsing for teas in a small storefront, the earthquake began and the lights went out.
“Within seconds of the lights going out, the shop started to shake,” said Van Gelder.
“It was shaking so aggressively we were being bounced against the two walls of this shop and everything was falling,” Van Gelder said. “I looked [to the storekeeper] and in shock I said ‘have you had this before?’ and he just looked at me and shook his head back and forth.”
As the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates grinded against each other, Kathmandu was thrown into chaos. Buildings collapsed, the earth trembled and Hammond ran from the building. As she searched for safety she was struck by the falling debris.
“Bricks started to fall down around me and that’s when I got hit by bricks on my back,” she said.
“The large impact was on my shoulder, which stunned me. I just kept thinking ‘this can’t be happening, I have a daughter at home, this is not happening’.”
Hammond was saved when a Nepalese man pulled her from the streets to a tree that sheltered her.
Inside the tea shop, Van Gelder was huddled in the back of the store with the owner, from inside the building she could hear screaming and devastation.
“I could see light coming from outside and in the narrow street there were people screaming, car horns honking and people running up the street, everyone in one direction,” she said
Having been separated neither of the two women knew whether or not the other was safe.
“Once I was able to get my bearings, I was able to get to the front door and I ran to the door and screamed for Kelly,” Van Gelder said. “I screamed out for Kelly and we saw each other and we knew we had each other.”
Hammond and Van Gelder’s first thoughts after reconnecting were to reunite with the 19 others they came with and they decided the best place to do so was at their hotel, the Yak and Yeti. As they walked the streets now marred by destruction, they saw the full impact of the earthquake.
“At this point we could see that it was devastation everywhere … There were horns honking, hydro poles down, loose wires, it was complete chaos,” said Van Gelder. “I had taken this picture of a woman in this mini-temple and that was what hit me the most, that this temple was crushed to the ground. At this point no one was digging out so surely she was gone,” She added.
Unable to contact the outside world and with only a limited scope of the breadth of the disaster, Hammond, Van Gelder and the rest of their group had to come to grips with the fact that their journey to base camp was now over.
“As we were going back to the hotel, I remember thinking that this trek is over, we’re not going anywhere now,” said Hammond. “The entire time our leader kept saying to stay focused and that we were still going.”
Not knowing whether or not Everest base camp had been affected or not, Van Gelder and Hammond said the group believed at one point that it may even be safer at base camp due to its lack of buildings and infrastructure.
Ultimately, given the increasing realization of the magnitude of the disaster and their ethical concerns, the group gave up on their trek.
“How can we do this – celebrate something while others are clearly suffering from a major tragedy?” said Van Gelder of the decision to not climb the mountain.
With evacuation uncertain, the group made their home in the garden outside of their hotel, which became known as the “five star refugee camp” for its access to water, food and electricity. Not ones to sit idly by, they channelled their inner Rotarians and set out to do what they could.
“We met with other rotary members from both Russia and Kathmandu,” Van Gelder said. “We had an impromptu rotary meeting while these tremors are happening and people are sleeping in makeshift tents,”
The group eventually organized some aid by using contacting friends and family to help send shelterboxes containing tents, blankets, water purification tablets and other vital supplies to the area. Since their return have continued to raise money to send shelter boxes to those affected by the disaster.
On the fifth day in Kathmandu they were safely evacuated on a commercial aircraft returning to Canada.
“At that point in time we were just bodies in the way, we were just bodies eating their food and drinking their water – we were just in the way,”
Once back in Canada they were bombarded by media requests and both of them decided it wasn’t time to come home yet. Van Gelder went directly to California while Hammond came home and left shortly for Mexico with her daughter.
“The first few days home there was a huge amount of people trying to friend me on Facebook and a huge amount of phone calls,” Hammond said. “Physically and emotionally, I just couldn’t address any of those.”
Now home and safe from physical danger, Hammond and Van Gelder have been dealing with the emotional scars left by the quake, scars that were reopened when a second quake struck the country on May 12. Van Gelder said the news of a second quake left her shaken and tearful, realizing that the people in Nepal were going through the disaster all over again.
“Everything that was structurally unsound from the first earthquakes and aftershocks were all destroyed and now monsoons are coming and some of [the villages and people] having even received aid yet. It’s like their world is coming down,” Hammond added.
Both Van Gelder and Hammon have continued to help those affected through shelterbox donations that they are collecting at their respective businesses, CORE health and Fitt Gym in Huntsville.
With such an intimate understanding of the event, both women are fearful that when the media cycle ends, so will the aid.
“Right now they have the attention and help and aid, but in a month from now, it’s going to be another statistic. Hopefully these people won’t be forgotten, but the need is going to be there longer than the month.”
To combat that, the two have committed to another attempt at the Everest trek, this time in 2018, with all money going to the relief effort.